Published November 20, 2014
One healthy Peyton will be on the field this Sunday in Indianapolis and he'll never be confused with the quarterback.
Unable to establish a running game last week in a season-opening loss to Cincinnati, the Browns may rely on massive doses of Hillis against the Peyton Manning-less Colts, a team that has won despite ignoring run defense for years and will be missing starting middle linebacker Gary Brackett, who is sidelined with a shoulder injury.
"We have to do what we do best," Hillis said.
Last year, the best thing the Browns did was to hand the ball off to Hillis, who had 270 carries for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns. His breakout season helped Hillis earn the cover of the Madden 12 video game, and it convinced the club to sign the 25-year-old to a multiyear contract extension, a deal they're still working on.
If Cleveland's gameplan last week was to give it to Hillis, it went out the window when the Bengals jumped out to a 13-0 lead. The Browns were forced to play catch-up through the air, and then had to pass almost exclusively when they trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Hillis finished with just 57 yards on 17 carries. The workhorse would like more work.
"Everybody wants the ball more," Hillis said this week. "The thing about it is, the game dictates it a lot and when you get down in the fourth quarter you have to throw the ball a lot more. For us as an offense, and for us as a team, we've got to stay in those second- and third-and-short areas."
The Browns are hoping to follow Houston's path to victory over the Colts.
The Texas got ahead early and pounded the ball down Indy's throat. Houston rushed 37 times for 167 yards last week, controlling the clock en route to a 34-7 blowout win.
Cleveland's hopes of rebounding from a gut-wrenching loss and evening its record could hinge on kick-starting its running game. The Browns will have to do so behind a revamped offensive line missing two starters and using a two-man rotation at right tackle.
Tony Pashos will miss his second straight game at right tackle with an ankle injury that coach Pat Shurmur said could keep the veteran out for weeks. Artis Hicks will likely start at right tackle with Oneil Cousins coming off the bench in spot duty. Cleveland is already starting rookie Jason Pinkston at left guard for Eric Steinbach, out for the season following back surgery. On the right side, Shawn Lavauo will be making his third career start at guard.
It's not an ideal situation, but it's the hand the Browns have been dealt.
In recent years, the Colts have been vulnerable to the run — perhaps by design.
Indianapolis has been ranked No. 25, 24 and 24 in rushing defense the past three seasons yet have managed to win 36 games. They are the only team in league history to finish dead last in that category and make the Super Bowl.
"They're special guys," Hicks said. "Give them a chance to pin their ears back and get after that quarterback, and it can be a nightmare. We have to try to be successful on first and second downs and keep ourselves out of those Freeney and Mathis killer downs, which is third and long. They can pin their ears back."
Shurmur's West Coast offense favors the pass, but that doesn't mean he's opposed to grounding it out.
"I believe in running the football," he said. "I think it's important we do it and I feel we've got backs that can carry it."
Montario Hardesty looked to be beyond his knee problems last weeks, showing some nice flashes while picking up 18 yards on six carries in his NFL debut. The Browns are confident Hardesty is healthy and believe he can be an effective change of pace to Hillis — or paired with him.
"It's important they both get their touches," Shurmur said. "Peyton is our starting runner and you'd like to make sure he gets the football a bunch of times. Montario did some good things for his first real stretch back. Each day, he looks better and better running. He's getting more and more comfortable with his leg and his body every day."
Hillis is as healthy as ever.
He's still adjusting to running behind rookie fullback Owen Marecic, who replaced Lawrence Vickers, and an offensive line with several new faces. Hillis believes he and the Browns are close to hitting their stride.
"There's a little bit of a rhythm just getting started again in the first couple of games in the season," he said. "Things are going to get back and I'm really not worried about it. It just takes a little time."