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Running down Hill-is; Browns establish identity

October 7, 2010
By BRENT SOBLESKI, sports writer

Marion Motley. Jim Brown. Kevin Mack. Ernest Byner. Leroy Hoard. Even Jamal Lewis produced wearing an orange and brown uniform. Powerful runners have been a staple of Cleveland Browns football since 1946. In 2010 a new name has emerged, Peyton Hillis.

"When I think of Cleveland, I think of me," Hillis recently told the Columbus Dispatch.

Over the past two games, the 250-pound freight train has ran over, through, and around divisional opponents the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals. He tallied 246 yards rushing against teams ranked in the top six in total defense. The performance is second best in the league during the same time period, only behind the all-world Minnesota product Adrian Peterson.

Currently, the Browns' most recent power back is eighth overall among the NFL in rushing yardage, tied with Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, with 322 yards.

A select few who have watched Cleveland this past year should not be surprised. The Browns finished eighth overall as a team in rushing yardage last season. In fact Jerome Harrison's 561 yard outburst in the final three games of 2009 was far more impressive. He was expected to be the team's bell cow this season, while Hillis was perceived as a mere throw-in during the March 14 trade of former starting quarterback Brady Quinn and generally considered an acquisition to improve depth. The Browns even chose a running back, Montario Hardesty, in the second round of this year's draft class to carry the load before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Hillis is used to being overshadowed.

After all, his collegiate backfield in Arkansas was crowded with a Heisman hopeful, Darren McFadden, and another future first round draft selection, Felix Jones.

While they were successfully inaugurating the world to the "Wildcat" formation, Hillis went about his duties blocking, running, receiving and returning kicks and punts. Despite posting 347 yards rushing, 49 receptions, 537 yards receiving, and seven total touchdowns as a senior, the multi-tooled prospect was selected 227th overall in the seventh round of the 2008 draft by the Denver Broncos.

The rookie finished his first NFL campaign as Denver's leading rusher after a rash of injuries struck their running back position. In a twist of fate, one of the young back's best games as a rookie came courtesy of a porous Browns' defense. Then-coach Mike Shanahan was fired, and Josh McDaniels was hired. Hillis' play under Shanahan was rewarded by having a running back, Knowshon Moreno, chosen in the first round by McDaniels. He found himself on the bench and out of favor in the Mile High city.

Now Hillis is quickly becoming the point man for a franchise desperately in need of a reversal of fortunes. He is setting the tone with his physical running attack, but wants none of the attention.

"It doesn't mean nothing to me unless we get the win," Hillis said after the 23-20 victory over the Bengals. "I take no glory for myself. I leave it all on the field and give the glory to my teammates and the Lord. Let's settle it at that."

NFL coaches often exclaim there is a fine line between winning and losing. This has been painfully obvious for the Browns. After the team's recent win, Cleveland's record stands at 1-3 - a squad which possessed leads in all four games this season.

When one takes a look at the statistics pertaining to Cleveland versus its opponents, it is easily noticeable just how true the previous statement can be.

The team holds differences including a margin of just two first downs in favor of the opponents. The same amount of touchdowns scored. Time of possession is separated by 2:28 with one more receiving and rushing attempt held by the opponents.

Cleveland does possess a 31-yard advantage in total rushing.

Running the football effectively is merely the first step to regain the glory days once synonymous with the team and its city. Now, the Eric Mangini led squad must build off what it can do effectively starting against this weekend's opponents, the Atlanta Falcons.

Atlanta travels to Cleveland sporting the 11th best run defense in the league surrendering 96.2 yards per game and has accomplished the feat against Pittsburgh, Arizona, New Orleans and San Francisco. The Steelers are the only team mentioned which currently reside in the top half of the league in rushing. Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall accumulated 120 yards, without a threat of a passing attack, and a memorable romp in overtime to defeat the Falcons.

Along the defensive line, Atlanta is undersized. The starting front four averages just over 283 pounds. Cleveland's offensive line outweighs the opponents by 31 pounds per man. The Browns only lineman to weigh under 300 pounds is veteran guard Eric Steinbach, while his bookend Floyd Womack tips the scales at 328 pounds. The unit averages 314 pounds across the board.

Before going any further, the Brown's offensive line warrants attention. It is the engine that has driven Hillis' all-terrain performance. Joe Thomas is the best left tackle in football. Steinbach is athletic and reliable. Alex Mack, last year's top selection, is rounding into a strong piledriving pivot. Womack has performed well in place of injured rookie Shawn Lauvao. And Tony Pashos is a mauler at right tackle after being inserted into the lineup replacing John St. Clair.

"He's a tough runner," Steinbach said discussing Hillis. "Right when he gets the ball he's heading north and he's trying to get as many yards as he can. He doesn't look left or right; he just goes."

On the flipside, the Falcons possess the fourth-best rushing attack. They counter Hillis' physical presence with two oversized runners of their own in the 244 pound Michael Turner and the 223 pound Jason Snelling. Turner has been one of the league's most productive backs since signing with Atlanta in 2008. But he has had injury issues. Snelling is more than just a placeholder when asked to tote the rock to a tune 129 yards against Arizona in week two of this season.

Cleveland enters the game with the 17th-ranked rushing defense, which is a 14-slot improvement over last year's unit.

Running the football with attitude, overpowering the opponent, and playing smart on every down is the identity Coach Mangini has established in Cleveland to date. Peyton Hillis is a very large reason as to why. As the weekend match-up against Atlanta draws ever near, the Browns will peer across the field Sunday just prior to 1 p.m. and feel like they are looking in the mirror.

 
 

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