This latest in our series of articles on US Sports has been penned by Irishman Conor Philpott…
Peyton Hillis is a bit of a divisive figure. After a superb 2010 season, where he ran for over 1100 yards and had 13 total Touchdowns Hillis has struggled. The former Madden Cover star has had his fair share of injuries and a lengthy contract dispute with the Cleveland Browns. That dispute saw him anger former teammate Joe Thomas, who derided Hillis for putting himself above the team. Some of his “injuries” were questioned by media, fans and teammates as Hillis worked to try and up the Browns offer for a new deal following the 2010 season, I think it would be fair to say that Hillis’ head was all over the place in the 2011 season, maybe he believed in some of his own hype but there was no doubt the guy had issues.
His most noticeable and strange event was probably the CIA story. Yes Hillis apparently contemplated retiring from the NFL and working for the CIA. Hillis became a free agent for the 2012 season and signed with the Chiefs for a year. You could argue the media gave him something of a raw deal and possibly made too much of some of his shenanigans but I think some of the reaction from his teammates probably says more than I could. Perhaps this has changed during his time in Kansas as Hillis was a backup with Jamaal Charles taking most of the carries and doing it incredibly well. Adrian Peterson’s superhuman performances off the back of his ACL/MCL injury deservedly took the plaudits but Charles’ season on the way back from an ACL tear was also incredibly good. He finished the season with over 1500 yards rushing and 236 yards receiving. Hillis’ injury record and abrasive style is likely to see him negated to a backup role for the rest of his career but the best NFL teams have depth at every position with running back depth being key. Last year the Bucs were heavily reliant on Doug Martin with perhaps a lack of trust and faith in LeGarette Blount and DJ Ware not offering much in the rushing department. If the team want Doug Martin to be a top player for years to come then they need to give him some rest. They drafted Mike James from Miami and signed Brian Leonard, a similar player to Hillis to help out Martin. I can’t see both Hillis and Leonard surviving to make the 53.
Anyway on to Hillis, I’ve looked at some youtube clips of some Hillis runs, it’s probably a bit clichéd at this point to liken him to former Buccaneer great Mike Alstott but he would remind me very much of Alstott. If you can get him to the second level then watch out! Not many defensive backs will want to tackle him or even be able to tackle him! While Hillis is of course powerful I was impressed by some of his nimbleness and athleticism. He seems to have decent hands and much like Blount he has shown the ability to hurdle! What people expect with a lot of big power type runners like Hillis is for them to more or less run exclusively “up the gut” mainly between the A or B gaps between the guards and the centres. Hillis is capable of doing that and does it very well but what I found interesting is that the Browns also tried to use him outside a lot too (I will give credit where it’s due, the superb NFL twitter account NFLosophy spotted this first and that thought gave me the idea to look into some of Hillis’ works, an account certainly worth a follow! https://twitter.com/NFLosophy). I’m going to look at a few Hillis runs from his time with the Browns and Chiefs and try do a brief evaluation of him (I will note that this is my first time having a go at something like this, and I have never played American football so if you want to pull me up on something go ahead you’re more than likely correct!)
The Browns line up with the 3 WRs and a sole RB in the backfield (Hillis). On the line they have the usual suspects (LT,LG,C,RG,RT) along with a TE outside the right tackles. The lines indicate who each person is blocking. The left tackle is taking the right defensive end, the left guard is taking a linebacker, the centre has a defensive tackle, the right guard is taking the other inside linebacker with the tackle taking a defensive end and the Tight End takes an Outside linebacker. The Browns blocking is extremely effective and they create a massive role for Hillis to run into. Much like Alstott, Hillis is dangerous when he gets to the second level,Hillis is given a sizable gap courtesy of his right guard and centre and he goes through, the linebackers are taken care of and he will pick up a decent gain. He goes 12 yards before hurdling a defender and picking up about a 15 yard gain. That small play confirmed the fact that Hillis can do a lot when he has some space and I also think it proves how crucial a role blocking has in making him look good. He is in a bit like Blount in that regard if you can give him that initial bit of space he will make something of it but the offensive line will need to be consistently winning in the trenches in order for him to have a productive day.
The next image is from a Thursday Night football game last season when Hillis was with the Chiefs. I’m going to put particular focus on the left side of the offensive line (in this case the centre, left guard and left tackle). Shaun Phillips of the Chargers, (circled in green) lines up opposite the left tackle, however he rushes inside trying to cause confusion between the Guard and centre. The guard is initially set up to block Aubrayo Franklin with the centre taking linebacker Butler. However Phillips’ rush inside works. Left tackle Branden Albert perhaps caught off guard by the move is unable to deal with Phillips, causing the guard to try and stop Phillips in his tracks. The centre is still going to block middle linebacker Donald Butler, which leaves Arubayo Franklin unblocked. In the next shot, circled in orange is Phillips (with the guard trying to block him) and circled in black is Franklin with his path to Hillis and Hillis’ intended running spot is also highlighted.
As expected Franklin has pretty much a clean shot at Hillis. I think we see some of the potential of Hillis in this play however. He is hit initially three yards behind the line of scrimmage by Franklin but manages to rumble on.
Eric Weddle and others come in to haul the big guy down. The play only gained a yard, but it shows that Hillis is definitely a guy who doesn’t give up on the play and will stand as long as he can. He showed nice desire and hunger to get as far as he can and nice vision to try and adjust after the initial gap was closed.
A quick snap here to show you another way of how Hillis can be used. The Browns liked to get him running outside the tackles quite a bit. For that to be effective, the blocking must be very good but Hillis will cause guys problems if he gets to the 2nd level. Hillis is out of shot in the photo as the Browns line up with a tight end and a full back. The Browns run a sweep play to the left. They get a good initial release to spring Hillis to the left and the right guard and tackle are able to slow down the linebackers enough to allow Hillis pick up some steam and get about a 6 or 7 yard gain. I believe he can be used outside the tackles too. The left hand side of the Buccaneers offensive line is quite nasty with Penn and Nicks I see no reason why the Bucs can’t run a similar play.
The Browns run a similar play with two tight ends outside the right tackle against the New Orleans Saints in 2010.
The Browns run a sweep to the outside with the QB pitching to Hillis, his left tackle and guard run outside. The centre take a DT while the right guard takes an incoming linebacker and the two TEs take the left end. I’ve circled an uncovered linebacker for the Saints. In the next shot the left guard deals with him very well. Hillis gets to the outside and his two linemen seal the perimeter well with his left tackle getting to the edge preventing the cornerback from touching him while the guard deals with the linebacker. Hillis sees the hole and bursts through evading the clutches of Roman Harper to go into the endzone
I think this final run will remind Bucs fans a bit of Alstott and also of LeGarette Blount to a degree. Hillis has quite a few similarities to the man who was traded to the Patriots this off season. However in some facets I would say that he is an upgrade over the former Duck. Blount wasn’t great at converting over short distances he would get “happy feet” and often spend far too long searching for a hole instead of trying to plough through guys. Hillis isn’t afraid to try and barrel through guys as that last bit shows. I’m going to look at another small bit from a Browns game against the Rams in the 2010 preseason. The Browns line up with 2 tight ends alongside the usual suspects. The first image shows who the linemen go to block along with what I believe is Hillis’ initial intended running path. You will notice the strongside backer for the Rams is circled as he is unblocked (the tight end on the right goes for a man out of shot).
Hillis’ intended path isn’t wide enough for him to squeeze through (black circle), he shows good vision and quick thinking to adjust and go for the gap between the right tackle and the tight end. He moves his feet quickly to get there and adjust. He seems to have a good feel for letting his blocks develop and adjusting which is a good sign. As the image shows the SLB is waiting to take him down or so you would think. He breaks the initial tackle as well as several others for a nine yard gain. Not too shabby!
Hillis is a good weapon in the passing game too. His 2010 season saw him haul in 61 catches for 477 yards and two touchdowns while he has hauled in 32 in the last two seasons. I think it is an area where he is an upgrade over Blount and should he be required to he can step up. His pass protection must be decent enough if the Browns and to a lesser extent the Chiefs trusted him enough to be involved in the passing game to such an extent. I believe his talents could be of use to the Buccaneers in a variety of roles. It’s quite possible we will see him involved in a lot of the short yardage situations his power and willingness to bludgeon opponents will certainly be of use there. Doug Martin’s fantasy stats may take a hit in that department however!
Hope you enjoyed reading!
Conor Philpott (@cphilpott95) is a proud Corkonian, and a massive sports fan with rugby being his sport of choice. Be it Munster, his club Highfield, the Lions or Ireland, Conor will probably be watching rugby in some shape or form