Ronnie Hillman admits he is still learning, still getting comfortable, with the Minnesota Vikings offense after arriving on Sept. 21. The fifth-year back is likely to see an increased role on Monday night against the Chicago Bears with Jerick McKinnon ruled out with a sprained ankle.
But Hillman, in his fifth season in the NFL, has little doubt in his rushing ability, despite spending only four-plus weeks with the Vikings so far.
“I’m pretty comfortable. I’m comfortable enough to rush for 100 if that’s what you’re asking,” he said. “It’s more of just the small things, the small tweaks that you have to listen for and know. It’s really the plays that you don’t account for that you have to be accountable for.”
With McKinnon injured Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, Hillman played in his first six snaps with the Vikings. He caught one pass for 2 yards and had one carry for minus-6 yards.
“It was a negative 6-yard play and that play is a lot of ifs. It so happened it was a negative-6 play, but it could have been an 80-yarder if we just would have been assignment sound,” Hillman said. “Stuff like that happens and we’ll make up for it.”
Hillman set career bests with 863 yards, a 4.2-yard average and a 72-yard touchdown run last year in Denver, but the Broncos released him before the start of the season.
That left him in free-agent limbo for nearly three weeks before he visited the San Diego Chargers just before signing with the Vikings, after Adrian Peterson hurt his knee (Peterson was placed on injured reserve two days after Hillman signed). Since then, Hillman has been trying to get up to speed on the Vikings’ schemes.
“It’s different. They block different things a different way. I guess the biggest thing is the blocking schemes, terms and blocking schemes,” he said in comparing Denver and Minnesota’s running games.
“I think they’re about the same as far as reading goes. It’s just know who is your first or second read.”
The Vikings could use an infusion in their running game. They rank last in yards per carry and 31st in rushing yards.
But, while Hillman feels comfortable running the ball, he said learning the pass protections were his first priority.
“That’s the first thing that you probably want to learn is pass pro because you’re really not going to get on the field if you can’t protect the quarterback,” he said. “I would say that’s probably the first thing you want to pick up if you go somewhere else. I’m good with that. That was the first thing I learned. Pass pro was probably the first thing I learned, and then knowing code words.”
There is good reason for Hillman pointing out his priority upon his arrival in Minnesota. Pro protection was considered a weakness for him in Denver and it doesn’t appear the Vikings are completely comfortable leaving Hillman with many of those duties.
“With backs like Ronnie, you don’t want him to be your lead pass-protecting back,” Turner said. “You’d like to get him out of the backfield and moving. But whoever the back is, the pass protection is a big part of it.”
The Vikings might try to limit Hillman’s exposure, but, like other positions, their hand could be forced to play him more with McKinnon out.
Hillman doesn’t view going against Chicago coach John Fox as a revenge game. Fox gave Hillman his chance in Denver and wasn’t the one that cut him earlier this fall.
Instead, if he garners a greater role, this is about proving to his current coaches that he warrants a deeper look. He still says he is getting comfortable with the entire playbook, but there are some things he would like to prove.
“That I can play, that I’m accountable for when I’m in there,” he said, “and I’m doing the right thing and show them that I still can play.”