One of the more pleasant surprises for the Browns has been the play of running back Peyton Hillis. He is on pace for a 1,000-yard season, ranks second on the team in receiving and has scored six touchdowns.
Hillis was considered a throw-in in the Brady Quinn trade -- folks in Cleveland now call it the Peyton Hillis trade -- to everyone but coach Eric Mangini.
"I felt like I had a pretty good idea of who he was when he ran all over us in New York and caught a bunch of balls," Mangini said. "That's why it was important for me to get him here."
One thing is clear: Hillis will be the Browns' workhorse the second half of the season. And as the weather gets worse, he should get more and more carries.
"Sometimes it's like anybody else that's doing something for the first time. He's never been a full-season starter because he's never had the opportunity to be a full-season starter," Mangini said. "He will have that opportunity here, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does with it over the course of 16 games."
REPORT CARD AFTER SEVEN GAMES
PASSING OFFENSE: D -- A glaring lack of big plays has plagued the Browns, as their lack of overall speed has hampered the passing attack. Cleveland ranks 30th in the league with 16 pass plays longer than 20 yards, and the team passer rating of 74.9 is 27th in the league. The offense is based on RB Peyton Hillis, who will produce some pounding runs and sustained drives, but it is absent the big play so vital in the present-day NFL. Also, teams watch film. Until the Browns show they can throw the ball downfield consistently, teams will stack the box to stop Hillis, making it that much harder for him to sustain what he's done the first half.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Hillis has been the team's most pleasant development. His bruising running style has carried the Browns to a 101-yard-per-game average. It's impressive, especially given the Browns gave up on the guy who carried them at the end of last season, Jerome Harrison. Hillis is big and strong but not fast. How long he sustains this effort, and how long he takes the constant pounding this style presents, could be key for the Browns' overall offense the final nine games.
PASS DEFENSE: C -- There have been games the pass defense has played well, specifically in the last game before the bye in New Orleans. Four interceptions of Drew Brees does not happen by accident. But there have been games when the Browns did not play well, specifically against Baltimore. The team's overall rank against the pass is low (26th, which indicates struggles), yet there have been good individual efforts, especially by rookie safety T.J. Ward. One concern: The Browns have given up 23 completions longer than 20 yards, which ranks them in the bottom third in the league.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus -- The Browns have been OK against the run, but not great. In some ways, there has been improvement. For a Browns team to "only" give up 111 yards per game is good considering Cleveland teams in past years had been in the 130- or 140-yard range per game. The best number the run defense has provided is '1' -- the first seven games opposing teams have rushed for only one touchdown.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- The only reason this grade is not higher is because of the expectations Josh Cribbs brings. For a guy who has done as much as he has not to have a big return or a return for a touchdown has been a disappointment. But opponents are loading up to stop Cribbs, and they have done a good job of it. Every other element of the Browns' special teams play has been outstanding. Coverage has been excellent. So has Phil Dawson's kicking and Reggie Hodges' punting. Too, the Browns took advantage of the threat of Cribbs to use a throwback return for a big play against New Orleans. Special teams coach Brad Seely does an excellent job; there's no reason he should not receive head coaching consideration.
COACHING: B -- Should Eric Mangini be judged on the record, which at 2-5 is poor? Or on the opening losses to Tampa Bay and Kansas City, which set a negative tone for the season from the start? Or should he be judged on the way his team plays, which is hard and with great effort? Mangini has preached from his hiring that he wants smart, tough, dedicated players who do not cause problems. That approach has given Cleveland a team that gives its all in every game, and one that has fought through a lot of negativity. It has not given Cleveland an overly talented team. Say this for the Browns and Mangini: The team has had a chance to win every game in the fourth quarter, and this 2-5 team seems a whole lot better than the one that started last year 1-6.