Ravens working on defending Browns' effective running back Peyton Hillis

December 22, 2010|By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun

Peyton Hillis' relevance to the NFL began in Week 3 when he gashed the Ravens for 144 yards on 22 carries, 36 receiving yards on seven passes and one rushing touchdown.

About 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns later, the Cleveland Browns running back still has his share of doubters — including a couple of Ravens.

"A blind cat will find a meal every once in a while," 11-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ray Lewis said Wednesday as the Ravens prepare to visit Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday. "It's just the way it happens. The thing about this league is about consistency. We understand the two big runs that we gave up against them and things like that. To be our team's leader, it won't happen again. So I hope they understand that."

Added defensive tackle Haloti Ngata: "Definitely won't happen again. There's some things that they did a good job [of] at scheming us and finding the holes for Peyton to hit because he's a north-and-south runner. He doesn't really like to run sideways and cut down, so we know that if we just close those holes for him to go through, then he's going to have to run sideways, and we can probably get him better that way."

That sentiment wasn't universal among all the Ravens players and coaches, who expressed admiration for Hillis.

"He's a really talented guy," coach John Harbaugh said. "… He complements their offensive line very well. They come off the ball. They're very physical. They run pretty much every I-formation running scheme there is, and they do it really effectively. And that's the kind of back he is."

Said outside linebacker Jarret Johnson: "We watched a little bit of film this morning of our first game, and it just wasn't good. Everybody kind of wanted to get up and go to the bathroom. So he's a good running back in a really good scheme, and it's a big challenge for us this week."

With two more games remaining in the regular season, Hillis has already joined some elite company. Before this year, Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly were the only Browns to compile 11 rushing touchdowns in a season, and Hillis is the first player to accomplish that feat since Kelly scored 14 times in 1968.

Hillis currently ranks third in the league in rushing touchdowns and first downs (80), fourth in catches by a running back (59), fifth in yards from scrimmage (1,598) and 10th in rushing yards (1,129).

It's been a remarkable transformation for Hillis, a seventh-round pick in 2008 from the University of Arkansas who has more touchdowns (17) than Darren McFadden (12) and Felix Jones (7) — two guys he blocked for with the Razorbacks.

Pegged as a fullback by the Denver Broncos, Hillis was rarely given a chance to be the featured back — with one exception.

On Nov. 30, 2008, Hillis carried the ball 22 times for 129 yards and one touchdown, catching the eye of then- New York Jets coach Eric Mangini.

"He was tough to deal with," recalled Mangini, who acquired Hillis from the Broncos in exchange for quarterback Brady Quinn on March 14. "It was the physical running that he had, but even in space, he could make people miss. And the other thing is, his hands out of the backfield, he's got incredible hands. He's got Ray Rice-type hands. They're both guys that seem to catch everything that's thrown to them."

Listed by Cleveland at 6-foot-2 250 pounds, Hillis' most noticeable asset is his strength, which he uses to bowl over would-be tacklers. Ravens strong safety Dawan Landry compared Hillis to former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis.

"Got to wrap up and bring him down," Landry said of Hillis. "He's a physical runner. … It seems like he never takes a play off. If you look at him on film, he brings it each and every time. That's kind of tough."

Hillis' size belies his speed and agility. This season, he has embarrassed several defenders by leaping over them, and he has the swiftness to outrace tacklers, which he demonstrated against the Ravens in their first meeting.

Hillis, who had registered just 76 yards in two games before visiting M&T Bank Stadium in September, surprised the Ravens.

"I wouldn't want to say caught off guard completely because he is in the NFL and he is here for a reason," inside linebacker Jameel McClain said. "But at that point, I don't think anybody in the National Football League actually knew what Peyton Hillis was capable of doing."

Hillis was held out of practice Wednesday due to a knee injury, but Mangini said Hillis should be fine for Sunday.

He also said he anticipates the Ravens making a concerted effort to limit Hillis.

"They're excellent at stopping the run, and I'm sure they're not going to allow that to happen again," Mangini said. "They're usually pretty good at correcting things when there's a hiccup. So we're going to have our work cut out for us in that area."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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