Xs & 0s: Nolan 1, Hillis 0

Peyton Hillis has been a force of nature for the Cleveland Browns since assuming the starting role earlier this year. So, how did the Dolphins shut down the Browns dangerous running back? Doug Farrar explains...

On the occasion of Josh "Skippy" McDaniels' firing, it's a good time to look at the recent exploits of two of his most egregious mistakes. We've talked before about the joke of a trade (from McDaniels' perspective) that sent Peyton Hillis and draft picks to the Browns for Brady Quinn, and we all know what Hillis has meant to Cleveland's offense this year. However, Skippy booted a similar difference-maker last season in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, and when those two personnel errors met last Sunday in the Browns' 13-10 win over the Miami Dolphins, Nolan was working on a similar turnaround to the one he orchestrated for the 2009 Broncos. Unfortunately for Hillis, Nolan's defense won this particular individual battle, and it wasn't even close.

Hillis ran 18 times for 57 yards (a 3.2 yards-per-carry average), and his longest gain was for 13 yards, which tells you that there were a lot of very short gains or outright stuffs against Miami's front seven. Strange numbers from one of the NFL's most efficient backs, but such was the extent of the Dolphins' front-line dominance. Their front seven is among the league's best when it comes to causing negative plays (over 20 percent of all running plays against them are stops and stuffs), and it's easy to see why when you turn on the tape – they're one of the most purely physical lines in the league, and Nolan is coaching them up very well when it comes to gap responsibility.

Hillis' 13-yarder came with 5:16 left in the first quarter, and the Browns with first-and-10 on their own 6-yard line. What took the inline defenders out of their gaps in this case was an A-gap blitz from inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, and fellow inside linebacker Karlos Dansby followed before backing out to trail Hillis. That didn't work so well for Dansby, as he got blocked out by Eric Steinbach, who was pulling over to the right side from left guard. Hilis hit the right B-gap with authority, and that's what makes those A-gap blitzes so risky if your second- and third-level defenders can't step up and provide inside containment.

Far more common was the run-stopping power the Dolphins showed out of their base four-man nickel front. Hillis got a good taste of this at the end of the first quarter, when he tried to head upfield off right guard and gained a single yard for his trouble. The Browns had first-and-10 from their own 14 on this play (diagrammed), and lined up in a single-back, three-wide set. At the span, Dobbins and Dansby flowed through to the inside gaps, but in a more read-and-react fashion, Dobbins was particularly hesitant to hit the line until he saw where Hillis was taking the ball, while Dansby got crunched once again by Steinbach's pull-block.

Right defensive end Kendall Langford was busy avenging Dansby's embarrassment by blowing Joe Thomas up, moving all the way across the pocket, and getting the first hand on Hillis behind the line of scrimmage. That gave Dobbins the opening and timing he needed to stop the play before it could get started.

Every running back – especially power backs in single-back sets spread wide – will get stuffed; it's the nature of the game. It was good news for the Browns, and another step in their impressive development, that they could come away with a win despite the elimination of their best offensive weapon.


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