CLEVELAND — Peyton Hillis leaves pain in his wake.
On separate carries last week, the Browns’ bruising running back inflicted damage to two Cincinnati defensive backs. Safety Roy Williams, one of the NFL’s biggest boppers, hurt his knee trying to take down Hillis, and cornerback Jonathan Joseph injured his forearm when he stuck it in front of Hillis.
Both remain banged up.
Warning: Tackling Hillis can be dangerous to one’s health.
“Peyton’s a load,” Browns coach Eric Mangini said. “I avoid him in the hallways. I don’t want to dislocate my shoulder.”
The Falcons better watch their wings.
Hillis, whose power running pushed the Browns to their first win last week, will seek his third straight 100-yard-plus game Sunday when Cleveland hosts Atlanta, whose opportunistic defense has carried the Falcons through four games this season.
Drawing comparisons to punishing runners like Larry Csonka, John Riggins and Mike Alstott, Hillis has been a pleasant surprise for the Browns (1-3), who couldn’t have imagined him being their top offensive weapon when they acquired him in an offseason trade with Denver for quarterback Brady Quinn.
Two weeks ago, he plowed through Baltimore’s fearsome defense for a career-high 144 yards on 22 carries. And just to show it wasn’t a fluke, Hillis ran for 102 on 27 tries last Sunday against the Bengals, who couldn’t stop him in the fourth quarter with the game still in doubt.
Cleveland gave the ball to Hillis six times in a span of 1:50, and thanks to his 24-yard gain for a first down just before the two-minute warning, the Browns ran out the final 4:41 to secure its 23-20 win.
Hillis was a horse, and the Browns may saddle him up again.
He’s not flashy on or off the field, but Hillis, whose football-loving father named him after legendary back Walter Payton, gets the job done.
“In high school I was a breakaway runner, but that was high school,” he said. “You have to use different parts of your game to help your team no matter what that is. Right now, it’s smashmouth running.”
The Browns have had to rely more on their ground game in recent weeks. With quarterback Jake Delhomme out with a badly sprained ankle and career backup Seneca Wallace starting at QB, the offensive game plan has been to keep things simple.
Cleveland wants to establish itself as a running team, and Hillis, a self-described “throwback style of back,” is leading the charge.
In a league where there’s so much focus on rocket-armed quarterbacks and diversified offenses, the Browns believe the straightest path to wins in the AFC North is by land — not air.
Delhomme has seen it work before.
“When we made the Super Bowl in ‘03 in Carolina, we were a run first, run second, run third football team up until about week 8 or 9 when we didn’t have Stephen Davis for a couple of weeks due to an injury,” said Delhomme, who is expected to return this week after being inactive for three weeks. “We had to throw it a little bit and guys made plays. We just kind of evolved and developed from there.
“Certainly in this division, you have to run the football. Where we live at, I think you have to run the football. Ground and pound is certainly key.”
For the Falcons, defense has been the difference.
With several new additions and a few holdovers, Atlanta’s defense, a major liability in past seasons, is allowing just 15 points per game and leading the league with eight interceptions. The Falcons’ secondary was upgraded with the signing of free agent cornerback Dunta Robinson, who has just one pick but whose presence has forced teams to throw away from him.
The Falcons can feel their defense taking flight.
“We’re right there,” said safety Thomas DeCoud. “There’s still things we know we can do better, we want to do better. But we’ve played very solidly up to this point. We’ve stopped the run, and done well against the pass. There have been a couple explosive runs and passes here and there, but we’ve kind of limited those as opposed to last year. We’re playing really good football right now.”
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has noticed. The Falcons are not nearly as one-sided as they’ve been in recent years.
At least through four weeks, they’ve found a nice balance.
“Our defense has been really good,” said Ryan, who is completing 70 percent of his passes in the fourth quarter. “They’ve done a good job creating turnovers. We’ve got some really talented guys, really young guys over there making plays. As an offense, it’s great to have a defense over there like that.”
The key this week is to avoid getting run over by Hillis, who was the lead blocker at Arkansas for star tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.
“He’s just a beast,” Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said of Hillis.
It’s not the image the soft-spoken Hillis is seeking. He relishes dishing out bumps and bruises, but he doesn’t take any satisfaction in seeing players helped to the training room after meeting him.
“I don’t like hurting people,” he said. “But that’s the game we play.”
Once the season ends, Hillis will enjoy his other passion, hunting. It’s what he learned to do growing up in Conway, Ark.
His favorite game?
“Not anything,” he said. “Everything.”
The quest for deer, turkey and pheasant must wait.
For now, he’s targeting cornerbacks and safeties.