Ravens Won’t Overlook Struggling Hillis

The Madden cover star is key to the Browns’ offense despite contract issues and injuries.

Posted by Garrett Downing on Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Categories: Garrett Downing

Peyton Hillis went from an unknown backup to the Madden 12 cover star in a matter of months.

The unpredictable rise by the Cleveland Browns running back has been matched by an even more surprising descent, as Hillis has drawn the ire of Cleveland fans and could likely be headed out of town at the end of the year.

“It’s been a really rough season,” Hillis said on a conference call Wednesday.

Hillis entered the season as the face of the team and an unquestioned fan favorite, but things started to go south after a squabble with Browns management over his wishes for a long-term contract.

With contract issue lingering, Hillis started the season slow and then sat out a Week 3 game against Miami because he had strep throat. He said he couldn’t have played, but complicated matters when he added that he sat out at the suggestion of his agent.

Hillis then had a combined 16 carries over the next two games, and team President Mike Holmgren said that the Browns were prepared to let Hillis go as a free agent at the end of the season. A hamstring injury then kept Hillis out of five straight games before he returned last weekend against Cincinnati.

He has missed six total contests and has 276 rushing yards on the season.

This season, quite simply, has been a nightmare.

“It’s probably been my worst season so far from a mental standpoint and physical one,” Hillis said. “All I can do from here on out is just go forward and hope the best happens.”

Despite all the problems Hillis and the Browns (4-7) have gone through this year, he returned to the lineup last week and made an immediate difference in the offense.

He rushed for 65 yards on 19 carries, and the Browns scored the most points (20) since their Week 2 victory over Indianapolis. Having a healthy Hillis back creates a new set of challenges for the Ravens defense.

“Anytime you get a running back of his caliber back in the lineup, I think it helps,” Browns Head Coach Pat Shurmur said. “He helped our cause and it was good to see him back out there.”

Hillis first jumped onto the scene in Week 3 last season when he collected 180 total yards against the Ravens defense.

Baltimore limited Hillis to 35 rushing yards the second time around, after Ray Lewis guaranteed they wouldn’t allow Hillis to gash them again, saying “a blind cat will find a meal every once in a while.”

Baltimore knows Hillis will be looking to deliver another breakthrough performance on Sunday.

“He’s a really aggressive runner,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Everybody knows he’s Peyton Hillis, he’s got the Madden cover, and he likes to have good games against good defenses.  I expect for the juggernaut to be in there and try to run down some walls.”

Finding success on the ground could be a struggle for Hillis, as the Ravens rank third in the NFL at stopping the run. Cleveland also hasn’t been able to do much through the air as Colt McCoy has struggled in his second season, meaning that teams can keep an extra defender in the box to stop the run.

One element to consider is the weather, which is almost always a factor in Cleveland in the back half of the season. The forecast for Sunday calls for temperatures in the 40s with a 40 percent chance of rain.

If it’s a cold, rainy afternoon, then the Browns might turn to Hillis to pound the ball on the ground. Regardless of the weather, the Browns will likely need a strong performance by the running game to have a chance at beating Baltimore.

In two of the three Ravens losses this season, they have allowed the opponent’s running back to top 100 yards on the ground – Maurice Jones Drew for Jacksonville and Marshawn Lynch for Seattle.

A similar performance by Hillis could spell trouble for the Ravens.

“They’re gonna bring it,” Suggs said. “Once again, our work is cut out for us.”

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