Peyton Hillis' surprising star turn from a year ago hit the skids this season, a curious downward spiral manufactured by injury, illness, a contract dispute and perhaps a touch of hubris. The Cleveland Browns' punishing running back has regressed from his status as a rugged back embraced as a poster boy for a blue-collar town into an often reviled figure.
His exit is anticipated at the end of the season as a free agent since there's been no progress toward a long-term deal with talks shelved.
"It's been a really rough season," Hillis said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "It's probably been my worst season so far from a mental standpoint and a physical one, you know, being injured and dealing and coping with the mental part of being injured. So, it's been a real rough season for me, and all I can do from here on out is just go forward and hope the best happens."
Hillis missed a game against the Miami Dolphins due to a case of strep throat, but acknowledged that he missed the game on advice from his agent.
At the time, contract discussions had hit an impasse. It did a lot of damage to Hillis' reputation, and team president Mike Holmgren stated that the team would likely allow him to leave via free agency after the season.
Hillis would miss five consecutive games prior to a solid return against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday when he rushed for a respectable 65 yards on 19 carries.
Following a breakthrough season last year where he rushed for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns and wound up gracing the Madden video game cover, Hillis has generated only 276 yards and two touchdowns this fall.
Nonetheless, the Baltimore Ravens respect the 6-foot-2, 250-pound bruising runner with free safety Ed Reed comparing the former Arkansas standout to former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Mike Alstott.
They're bracing for a physical encounter with Hillis on Sunday in Cleveland.
"He's a power runner," free safety Ed Reed said. "It reminds me of Tampa Bay when they had Alstott in there, he kind of looks the same. That's what you're going to get with Peyton. He's a hell of a back. I know he's been hurt with that hamstring, and that's tough on a big guy like that.
"It definitely slows him down. He looks like he's 100 percent now after watching him in the Cincinnati game. We know we have a task with tackling that guy. He's a hassle, but we're definitely prepared enough for the task."
Hillis has been through a lot this season, much of it self-inflicted wounds as his image has taken hit after hit.
Teammates confronted him during a meeting and called him out publicly, questioning his commitment to the team.
"Relationship is fine," Hillis said. "It never was a distraction. I just think the guys got tired of everybody asking them about me, so they just wanted to confront me about it since they're my teammates and my friends. And they just wanted to put the positive foot forward."
And Hills sounds resigned to this possibly being his last season in Cleveland even though he said he would like to return.
His hopes for a lucrative contract extension have been extinguished.
"As far as the contract standpoint goes, I really haven't thought about it, especially in a long time, especially since I haven't been producing, playing, figuring I've just been worried and working on getting back in there playing and stuff like that," Hillis said. "The contract talks haven't even crossed my mind, either."
Even though Hillis and the Browns (4-7) haven't had a banner season, the Ravens still consider him to be a dangerous threat.
It was Hillis who busted onto the NFL scene last September with 144 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries as he piled up 180 yards of total offense against the Ravens.
He became the last running back to eclipse the 120-yard mark against the Ravens since Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl runner Adrian Peterson two years ago.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis famously guaranteed that Hillis wouldn't duplicate his impactful performance, saying, "a blind cat will find a meal every once in a while." And Baltimore shut Hillis down to the tune of 35 yards in the second game of the annual series
"Peyton Hillis is a professional football player," defensive end Cory Redding said. "Regardless of how many weeks he's been out, he still is a paid, professional football player. A lot of pride, a lot of heart, a lot of fight is going to come out of that man.
"Whenever he straps on the pads, it's going to be war. He knows it, we know, so the best thing to do is go out there with the mindset of stopping it. We stopped him before and we can do it again."
The Ravens know what's coming.
Hillis' style is brutally simple, colliding with linebackers with his helmet tilted forward, all shoulders, forearms and leg drive.
"He's a really aggressive runner," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Everybody knows he's Peyton Hillis, he's got the Madden cover, and he likes to have good games against good defenses. I expect for the juggernaut to be in there and try to run down some walls."
The Ravens rank third against the run in the NFL, surrendering only 91.5 yards on the ground per contest.
The Ravens have allowed two opposing runners to hit the century mark this season, losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew and the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch.
And now that Hillis is healthy, the Ravens are facing another difficult task.
"It's a huge challenge," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He's a big guy, he's a strong guy. He's a downhill guy. I think our guys fully understand and they know what they're up against."
The Browns have averaged 141 rushing yards per game over the past two games, utilizing Hillis as well as Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya.
"I think I can make a huge difference," Hillis said. "I haven't been out there too much, but I feel like when I get out there I can produce and help the team win."
Notebook: Ravens not overconfident against Browns' vulnerable run defense
OWINGS MILLS – Ray Rice is too savvy to assume that the Cleveland Browns' defense will be a pushover Sunday on the road.
The Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl running back is aware that the Browns are struggling to stop the run, ranking 29th in the league with an average of 138.6 yards allowed per contest.
However, he expects the Browns to make adjustments after losing strongside linebacker Scott Fujita for the season this week and having given up 100-yard rushers in three of the past four games.
"Obviously if there's something that needs to be fixed, they're going to address the run game," Rice said. "I'm sure that's going to be a top priority coming into this game. We have to execute against them in the front."
Despite the presence of aggressive linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and big, active defensive linemen Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor, the Browns have struggled against the run.
San Francisco 49ers runner Frank Gore gashed them for 134 yards, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster gained 124 yards while backup Ben Tate rushed for 115 more with St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson finishing with 128 yards and Cincinnati Bengals running back Cedric Benson rushing for 101 yards last Sunday.
The Browns rank first in passing defense, but their run defense has been shoddy since shifting to a 4-3 defense.
"The bottom line is people have had success running the ball on them for whatever reason," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Obviously, they've been good in the pass defense. We just have to go in there and attack them with our game plan."
The Ravens tend to run the football effectively this time of year, averaging 152.6 yards on the ground in December and January dating back to 2008.
"I'm looking forward to December football," said Rice, who has rushed for 722 yards and eight touchdowns. "December football is when I want to elevate my game. It's sort of like being a fourth-quarter player. This is the fourth quarter of our season."
The Ravens remained stubborn with the run against the top-ranked 49ers run defense with Rice gaining 59 yards on 21 carries last week.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has had a more balanced approach over the past two games.
"Traditional thinking says that's all that matters, and then you watch Green Bay and New England," Cameron said. "You look at teams that are winning championships and you say, ‘Really, it doesn't hold true.' Maybe it holds true for us. Bottom line is we want to run the football.
"We like to be physical. Bottom line is we can run it, we can throw it. We have to execute no matter which direction we decide to go and do whatever it takes to win every individual game. I think a little traditionally, but look around. It's not about running the football to win championships. That's not a slam dunk anymore, though we do want to run the football."
The Ravens rushed for 105 yards on 28 carries against the Bengals and 92 yards on 35 carries against the 49ers.
It keeps opposing defenses honest.
"We always want to run the football," Cameron said. "That's part of our DNA. That's what we want to do. Sometimes good defenses don't allow you to do that, and so you can't be stupid either. We've got a ton of trust in Joe, we've got Anquan Boldin, we've got tight ends, we've got people we can throw the football to.
"So it all fits together. There's times when you're going to run it a lot. We also know in this league, the teams that are scoring points consistently have to execute in the passing game."
R. LEWIS SIDELINED: Middle linebacker Ray Lewis didn't practice for the second day in a row.
The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year has missed the past two games with a right turf toe injury.
Should Lewis not practice today, it looks unlikely that he would play Sunday.
Cornerback Chris Carr (back) was downgraded to not practicing after being limited Wednesday. He missed the 49ers game.
For the second consecutive day, inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (hamstring, groin), defensive tackle Arthur Jones (concussion) and rookie running back Anthony Allen (hamstring) participated fully.
Browns safety T.J. Ward (foot, finger) didn't practice again along with linebacker Quinton Spears (hamstring).
Free safety Mike Adams (shoulder) and running back Montario Hardesty (calf) were upgraded to limited after not practicing the previous day.
Former Ravens offensive tackle Tony Pashos (ankle) was limited again along with defensive back Dimitri Patterson (ankle), linebacker Kaluka Maiva (shoulder) and defensive lineman Jayme Mitchell (ankle).
Quarterback Colt McCoy (right elbow), running back Peyton Hillis (hamstring), fullback Owen Marecic (concussion) and defensive lineman Scott Paxson (shin) participated fully.
FACING CRIBBS: The Ravens have buckled down lately against Browns Pro Bowl return specialist Joshua Cribbs.
Four years ago in an overtime win over Baltimore, Cribbs had 245 yards on seven kickoff returns.
One year later in a loss, he had 237 kickoff return yards on seven kickoffs. That included a 92-yard touchdown return.
During the past four meetings, Cribbs has been contained with no returns over 40 yards.
"We didn't stay in front of him, and the guy's just dynamic," safety Haruki Nakamura said of previous setbacks against Cribbs. "He's big, he's strong he's physical. So, he's going to just run straight ahead and run through arm tackles. And that's exactly what he did.
"As the years went on, we learned how to defend him, because it's as simple as just getting in front of him, making him go laterally and just not letting him go north-south. Once he goes north-south, he's pretty much going for the touchdown."
Cribbs is a bullish returner at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, racing up to catch the kickoff and aggressively running into tacklers.
"He's strong, he's elusive," said Ravens special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who helped develop Cribbs' skills when he was coaching in Cleveland. "He's got speed. So, we know going into the game that he's a big weapon for them, and it's our job to make sure that he doesn't get away from us."
The Ravens want to force Cribbs to run toward the sideline, but he rarely does that. He prefers to attack kickoff teams right up the middle.
"He's so big, he's so strong, and he uses that," Nakamura said. "That's his strength, so why would he go laterally? He can run through little guys. Now that we've faced him a whole bunch of times, we kind of figured out how to attack.
"And thank God we've got Jerry. Jerry totally understands him because he's the guy who found Cribbs. It just was a matter of experience and getting better."
Cribbs is averaging 26.8 yards per kickoff return and nine yards per punt return.
The Ravens have allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown to New York Jets running back Joe McKnight and a punt return for a touchdown against Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson.
However, they fared well against Ted Ginn Jr. and Leon Washington over the past couple games.
"We've gone the last few weeks against some of the premier punt returners in football, and one of our main priorities was to not let them wreck the game for us," Harbaugh said. "And that's going to be true with Josh Cribbs. He's hurt us a few times, not recently. We've just got to make sure we do a great job of that, but our guys are up to the challenge.
ROSTER MOVES: The Ravens brought back rookie linebacker Josh Bynes to the practice squad after cutting him earlier this week.
They placed rookie wide receiver Rodney Bradley on the practice squad injured list.
QUICK HITS: Newly-acquired safety Emanuel Cook is expected to contribute on special teams Sunday.
He's doing well, we're excited to have him," Rosburg said. "He's still in the learning mode, obviously. He's got some catching up to do with how we call things and how we do things, but he's eager, he's spending extra time. He understands special teams. So, it's not like we have to teach him how to play. We just have to teach him how we call things and how we work together and how we do things. He's had two good days."
The wind off Lake Erie can affect kicks at Cleveland Browns Stadium, one more thing for kicker Billy Cundiff and punter Sam Koch to prepare for.
"Sometimes it's coming off the lake and sometimes it's not," Rosburg said. "The wind, generally speaking, is always a challenge in that stadium. It's not just the direction, it's also the velocity and the fact that it swirls inside that stadium. Yes, the wind is always a factor there, and it will be this week."
Browns coach Pat Shurmur is a good friend of Ravens coach John Harbaugh, working together with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Pat's a great friend," Harbaugh said. "He's obviously a really good coach, and you can certainly see what he's building there in Cleveland as far as the way he's putting that team together."
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