No one knew what to expect, and that included the Browns’ coaching staff.
But Peyton Hillis was healthy. He had finally recovered from a pulled hamstring and was ready to play.
The lingering question was: How much would he play? Initially, the thought was that Montario Hardesty, who had returned to practice after being sidelined with a calf injury, would get the bulk of the carries in Sunday’s game against the Bengals. But Hardesty’s calf began bothering him during pregame warm-ups, and he wound up not playing.
That led to speculation that Chris Ogbonnaya, making his fourth start, would be the workhorse while Hillis would be limited to short-yardage and goal-line duty.
But after the Browns’ first play from scrimmage, Hillis was on the field, and he would assume the primary role he once held in the Cleveland backfield while Ogbonnaya ended up with a cameo role.
Hillis finished with 19 carries for 65 yards. His 3.4 yards per carry weren’t all that impressive. But he did look more like the Hillis of old, consistently powering his way up the middle.
The Bengals’ defense generally seemed ill prepared to handle Hillis’ blunt, in-your-face running style, which was something he wasn’t showing earlier in the season after it became the signature of his breakout year in 2010 that earned him the cover of “Madden NFL Twelve.”
Hillis ran with a sense of authority and purpose. He played with a higher level of urgency and enthusiasm than he had demonstrated at any point since the season began. The controversy over his pursuit of a contract extension had raised troubling questions about Hillis’ desire to perform at his best and whether he wanted to be part of the Browns.
What the future holds for Hillis on the team remains to be seen. But on Sunday, he seemed all-in. His play said as much. So did his body language.
If Hillis can maintain that sort of attitude the rest of the way, while staying healthy, the Browns’ running game could receive a much-needed lift when the team needs it the most. And if Hardesty is able to get back into the lineup, that should only help the Browns’ offense to continue to make progress.
As the game wore on, the Bengals’ defense seemed to wear down from Hillis’ running. Hillis’ presence also seemed to give Pat Shurmur more options when it came to calling plays and utilizing his personnel. Shurmur had Hillis and Ogbonnaya in the backfield at the same time, once with Hillis lined up at fullback, his position at Arkansas. Shurmur split Hillis and Ogbonnaya wide.
However, Hillis’ contributions weren’t enough. Nothing the Browns did in any phase was enough, which is why they find themselves with a 4-7 record and still at the bottom of the AFC North.
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