The Minnesota Vikings are going to be entering new territory Monday night with their running back tandem. With Adrian Peterson on injured reserve and replacement starter Jerick McKinnon not playing due to an ankle injury, the running game is going to fall onto the pairing of Matt Asiata and Ronnie Hillman Monday night against the Chicago Bears.
Asiata has had his moments with the Vikings, although it has always been clear that he is between-the-tackles pounder who isn’t a big-play threat. When given the opportunity, he has put up some big games.
When Peterson was suspended in 2014, Asiata and McKinnon were asked to share the giant role that Peterson had in the offense. In the 14 games Asiata played in 2014, he scored nine touchdowns, including a two-touchdown performance and a pair of three-touchdown games.
In his final start of the 2014 season, he played against the Bears and rushed 19 times for 91 yards, the second-highest single-game total of his career.
The wild card in the rushing equation is going to be the player who has yet to make an impact – Hillman.
His career rushing numbers for the Vikings aren’t the kind of thing that get you handed a game ball from your coach – one rush for minus-6 yards.
When the Vikings signed Hillman as they placed Peterson on injured reserve there was very little fanfare. But, when given the opportunity in Denver, Hillman proved to be a versatile and productive back.
When Hillman arrived in Denver in 2012, he had the good fortune of being accompanied by a journeyman quarterback named Peyton Manning. However, he was buried on the depth chart. When starter Willis McGahee went down to injury, Knowshon Moreno stepped in and dominated the ground game, rushing 130 times in the final six games of the regular season.
In 2013, McGahee was gone, but Hillman still found himself third fiddle because Moreno was the go-to back and the Broncos drafted Montee Ball to be the No. 2 guy.
In 2014, Moreno was gone, but now joining the band was C.J. Anderson. Ball began the year as the starter, but as Wisconsin running backs often do, he broke down early in the season. It was the first chance for Hillman to make the job his after being inactive the first two weeks of the season. For five weeks, Hillman was the main show in town, but he got injured and Anderson took the job over.
In 2015, Hillman led the Broncos in rushing during their Super Bowl-winning season, rushing 207 times for 863 yards and seven touchdowns. He was finally making his place in Denver.
That was until John Elway drafted Devontae Booker in this spring’s draft. Anderson was going to be the primary back and Elway drafted a guy who does Hillman’s job.
He has spent his career being buried and disrespected on a regular and continuing basis. Even when he came to the Vikings, things didn’t change much. In his first three games, he was – you guessed it – the No. 3 running back out of three. He wasn’t active for any of those three games. When he was activated last week, his strange-looking stat line of 1-(-6)-0 is all he has to go off of heading into Monday.
He has moved from No. 3 on the running back depth chart to No. 2 with McKinnon’s injury and will get the opportunity to do what he does his entire career – serve as a bullet in reserve until he’s needed.
At least now, only Asiata stands in his way to trying to jump-start his career … again.