The only thing better than the first win of the season is the first win of the season against a division rival, and the Browns experienced both last Sunday in a 23-20 upset of the Cincinnati Bengals. Running back Peyton Hillis, who was once a mere throw-in as part of the Brady Quinn trade, has turned into one of Josh McDaniels' more erroneous personnel missteps – he's scored a touchdown in each of Cleveland's first four games, and his 144-yard rushing performance in Week 3 against the Ravens put to bed any concerns that the former Arkansas Razorback was a fluke.
I profiled Hillis back in August, but now that the games and results are real, I thought it was time once again to look at Cleveland's most explosive and effective offensive player – through four weeks, he ranks sixth in Football Outsiders' DYAR rankings for running backs (DYAR tabulates overall season efficiency), and he's equally strong in FO's DVOA (per-play) metrics. He's also the first Browns back since Greg Pruitt in 1976 to score touchdowns in four consecutive games.
As a power back with some speed, Hillis is a perfect back for this offense, in which the line isn't the most powerful, but fullback Lawrence Vickers might be the NFL's best blocker at his position. The Browns run a lot out of the I- and offset I-formations, and much of their passing game is based on play action. In that regard, it's not a stretch to say that Hillis, this former seventh-round pick of the Broncos, has become the epicenter of Cleveland's offense. And even when the Browns' iffy passing game fails to keep defenses on the alert for the deep pass, Hillis is still able to make gains with seven or eight in the box.
Hillis' third-quarter touchdown put the Browns ahead just enough to withstand the Bengals' late comeback, but the play I thought was worth diagramming was his 24-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
With 2:46 left in the game and the Browns at their own 27, the offense lined up in an offset-I on first-and-10. The formation and the intent were no mystery to Cincinnati – Hillis had taken handoffs on the prior five plays – and they put nine in the box as a result. As the two tight ends on the right side combo-blocked the Bengals' left side line and the Browns' offensive line went into slide protection mode, Vickers (47) took out cornerback Morgan Trent (25) outside left end. While middle linebacker Keith Rivers (55) tried to head outside to catch up with Hillis, the running back was quick enough to the edge to elude Rivers, and he was then off to the races. It took safety Chris Crocker (42) to bring Hillis down 24 yards downfield.
It was great how well Hillis darted outside, but the blocking really made this play happen. Not only with the tight ends, fullback, and right side slide, but left guard Eric Steinbach pulled right and sealed the frontside edge, which allowed Hillis to bounce outside and hit the second level. And right guard Floyd Womack hit the linebacker level nicely to keep safety Chinedum Ndukwe from crossing the field. When you see an offense set things up this well for a back, it's the best indicator of all that the offense is in sync.
The Browns have been looking for a consistent offensive threat for a long time. No matter how strange his journey has been, it appears that Peyton Hillis fits that description perfectly.