In an era of hyper-specialization in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns are stocking up on players who can do many different things. We all know about Josh Cribbs' versatility, and new Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace saw duty as a receiver and punt returner in Seattle – once in a great while, Wallace would play safety on the scout team in practice. Former Broncos fullback Peyton Hillis is another Swiss Army knife guy.
Before he was acquired by the Browns in the Brady Quinn Trade, Hillis was perhaps best known as the guy who led the 2008 Broncos in rushing – with 343 yards! He also helped the dynamic Arkansas backfield of Felix Jones and Darren McFadden go. For the Browns, Eric Mangini saw HIllis as a guy who could move and do it with considerable size and versatility. And while there wasn't much good to take from the team's 19-17 preseason loss to the Rams last Saturday, Hillis showed that he can be a valuable part of a developing offense.
For a 6-foot-2, 250-pound back, Hillis can get to the second level in a hurry. But he's most impressive when he's just bulling through tackles, as he did on the first play of the second quarter. With first-and-10 at the St. Louis 36, the Browns went with an interesting line look – two tight ends (one on each side) and left tackle Joe Thomas (73) on the right side, outside right tackle John St. Clair (78). Teams like Miami and Baltimore will set their tackles on an uneven side in six-man fronts, but this was an unusual use of the concept.
The Rams countered with an under front (4-3 weak side array – we'll call the left side the weak in this case since there was no tackle over there). But the play was really made by Hillis – in order, he broke the tackle attempts of Rams linebackers James Laurinaitis, Na'il Diggs, and Larry Grant, then crashed through safety O.J. Atogwe and cornerback Ronald Bartell before the gang-tackle took effect and HIllis was called down nine yards downfield. It was an amazing play, and something the Browns can build on, especially in the red zone. On the next play, the Rams were hyper-conscious of Hillis, bringing linebacker into both A-gaps and stuffing the line for a one-yard Hillis gain.
Hillis is also a receiving threat, which we saw a few plays later. With third-and-12 at the St. Louis 28, the Browns went shotgun against a Cover-0 to all-out blitz/zone drop by the Rams. Jake Delhomme wisely checked out of the confusion and found Hillis on a little swing pass to the right, and Hillis juked linebacker Chris Chamberlain out of his shoes before safety Craig Dahl (43) took him down nine yards downfield. When Mike Holmgren was calling plays for the Seahawks, he loved the fullback dump-off to Mack Strong, and it's easy to see how Hillis could play a similar role when Cleveland's quarterbacks are under pressure.
Peyton Hillis probably won't be a feature back in this offensive system, but he's no preseason fluke. He can make tracks for a Browns offense in desperate need of consistent playmakers.