Hillis' absence looms large for punchless Browns

Posted Nov. 07, 2011 @ 7:30 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

The Browns likely again will be without RBs Peyton Hillis (hamstring) and Montario Hardesty (calf) on Sunday vs. St. Louis, head coach Pat Shurmur indicated Monday, multiple media outlets reported.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal and The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, Hillis has been ruled out completely, with Hardesty likely not to play either, Shurmur said.

Shurmur said that the Browns want Hillis, who has had a season marked by injury, illness and controversy, to return and be part of the offense.

"We want him to get healthy," Shurmur said, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. "... We're gonna proceed to get him back as soon as possible."

With both backs out Sunday at Houston, the Browns' running game was ineffective. Chris Ogbonnaya, third on the depth chart, rushed for 28 yards on 13 carries and lost a fumble on his first touch of the game. Ogbonnaya's backup, Thomas Clayton, rushed for 10 yards on five carries.

The Browns have lost their last two games and are three games out of first place in the AFC North. They host St. Louis on Sunday.

The PFW spin

Hillis' season to forget to continues. A free-agent-to-be, Hillis' value has undoubtedly suffered in the first half of 2011. It's unclear whether Hillis has any future in Cleveland beyond this season, though the prospects are surely dimmer than they were at the beginning of the year.

But this much is clear: In the best-case scenario for player and team, Hillis gets back onto the field as soon as possible. The Browns need Hillis, and he needs the Browns right now. There is no way around it. He is the club's most important offensive player. When he's playing well, he can wear down a defense, bolster the play-action passing game and set the tone for the offense.

Hillis' importance has been driven home in his absence. The Browns' passing game doesn't stretch the field. Its running game doesn't wear down defenses nor test them with speed. Overall, Cleveland has 14 offensive plays of 20 yards or longer this season.

With so little game-breaking ability on offense, the Browns are limited in the types of games they can win right now. When Houston broke out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead Sunday, it was clear Cleveland was in deep trouble, given the Browns' defense — its strength to this point of the season — had no answers for Houston's strong running game. If the Browns were going to come back and win, it was going to take some or all of the following: mistakes by the Texans, improvement from the Browns' offense, and the Browns' defense really buckling down.

The Texans, of course, coasted to a 30-12 win and were never in danger.

The Browns' defense gets a pass — it has done more than its share to this point of the season. The Browns' offense, compromised by the RB injuries, could also get a pass if you're in a charitable mood, but the attack's sustained problems have hurt Cleveland all season even when at full strength. 

So what are the Browns' options on offense now? For starters, the Browns need to get WR Joshua Cribbs more involved. This was easier when the Browns used their Wildcat-style "Flash" package when Brian Daboll was the offensive coordinator, but that package is no longer part of the offense, it appears.

Shurmur, the club's de facto offensive coordinator, must get Cribbs more touches on offense. Those opportunities aren't coming in great enough numbers on special teams. It's time for a more concerted effort to get him involved. Seven — seven — Browns have more carries than Cribbs. Shurmur needs to find a way to get him the ball in space more often.

To a lesser extent, the Browns could also consider getting Clayton more involved. The Browns have given Ogbonnaya a good deal of work, and he hasn't impressed. Yes, Clayton may still be learning the offense after being signed just last week, but he looks to have more speed than Ogbonnaya.

The Browns' best shot on offense this season, however, will come with Hillis in the backfield.

Cleveland is favored vs. St. Louis on Sunday, and it could very well be favored vs. Jacksonville next week, but considering how its offense has played, penciling in two "W's" for the Browns is risky. And two losses, indeed, are possible for a club whose wins have come against clubs with a combined three wins and by an average margin of just four points.