In the second half of the 2014 season, two rookies took the NFL by storm: New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. and Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. Oddly enough, both played college football together at LSU, and after both battled their respective early season issues (injury for Beckham, lack of touches for Hill), they were some of the hottest names in the league as the season ended.
As a rookie, Hill finished 2014 with 1,124 rushing yards, nine touchdowns and a 5.1-yard per carry average. The return of both Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert made some wonder how Hill's touches would be affected, but with more balance and health on the unit, most assumed Hill would have often field days at the office like last season.
Instead, Hill has been a victim of the dreaded "sophomore slump", plodding to just 490 yards and a 3.5-yard per carry average through the first 11 games of 2015. While his cracking of the end zone this year has been a positive with eight total touchdowns (seven rushing, one receiving), it's largely been a disappointing season in the running game for a team who still loves to run the ball.
The defense and Andy Dalton's right arm have helped to make up the yardage production Hill hasn't provided this year. Last year, Giovani Bernard was the one who struggled after an exciting rookie campaign, but it has been he who took losing the "starting role" to Hill personally in 2015. Bernard has almost 200 more rushing yards than Hill in 2015 and is getting over 1.5 yards more per carry, on average.
Before the team's Week 11 game against the St. Louis Rams, Hill was called into offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's office for a little pow-wow. It was obvious Hill took heed to what Jackson told him, getting his highest yards per carry average (5.4) and tying his season-best for longest run at 15 yards. He finished the day against the Rams with 86 yards on 16 carries.
The hope was that Hill was beginning to heat up at the right time, as the playoffs begin to loom on the horizon. Going up against the lowly Cleveland Browns defense and resting some important starters on Sunday, getting the run going had to be a big part of the Bengals' game plan. With 33 run plays called to just 19 pass attempts, it made the idea clear, and thanks to Hill, the plan was extremely successful.
Hill had his best game of the year with 98 yards on 22 carries, a 4.5-yard per carry clip, as well as a touchdown run. Vision, patience and power were on display in Cleveland, as they were for Hill throughout most of the 2014 season. Have a look at the 17-yard run against the Browns, his longest of 2015:
Jeremy Hill with a 17 yard run, nearing the redzone. https://t.co/101Y2tmFyh— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 6, 2015
Hill fought through arm tackles and used his blocks to perfection. While he isn't and hasn't cracked the same kind of runs like the 85-yarder we saw on Monday night last year against the Broncos, you're beginning to see the quick feet and other attributes he displayed in making some of those bigger plays. Hill capped the drive containing his long run and another highlight reel grab by A.J. Green with a one-yard score.
Last season in his dominant performance against the Browns, Hill celebrated one of his touchdowns by jumping into the Cleveland stands. A Browns fan didn't like the gesture and straight-armed Hill off of the wall. After plowing into the end zone again this Sunday, Hill sought out Bengals fans in the front rows and jumped into their embrace. This time, it was Browns linebacker Chris Kirksey who pulled Hill off the wall and was tagged with a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff.
Jeremy Hill jumped into dawg pound (mostly all Bengals) then gets pulled down by Kirksey. Bengals lead 27-3. https://t.co/ezsq5pvAE8— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 6, 2015
Hill coming off of two of his best games of 2015 in back-to-back weeks bodes well for the team in the playoff stretch. It isn't just Hill who has improved to mark the difference, either. The offensive line, particularly the interior, has played much better the past two weeks, giving him more lanes. We're also seeing more snaps from H-Back Ryan Hewitt, who often engulfs blockers to help a north-south runner like No. 32.
In speaking with the media after the win, Hill echoed the "team effort" sentiment. "I think it really is a team effort," Hill said. "The running game is starting to get a little bit better. Everybody is doing their job on the line. They're also protecting Andy (Dalton), I don't think he got sacked once today. Everybody is coming together and it really is a team effort."
Dalton actually did get sacked - once - but it was more of a play taking one for the team and meaningless.
With the AFC North crown clear in sight and the team sitting at 10-2, Hill said winning the division is their "number one goal".
"At the beginning of the season, we said that we wanted to win the AFC North," Hill said. "That is our number one goal. Obviously next week is going to be big, but we just have to continue to work and practice hard. I think our practice intensity has been up and that has translated over to game days."
Dalton in speaking with the media praised Hue Jackson's play calling in the red zone, citing creativity. It's that creativity that may have had the Browns' defense on its heels a tiny bit when Hill chugged his one-yarder into the end zone.
More than anything else, the hope is that the Bengals can remain largely healthy at key positions as January nears. In 2014, the offense was decimated by injury, making Hill's job immensely more difficult against the Colts in last year's Wild Card loss. He finished last year's exit game with 47 yards on 13 carries. With more weapons and increased confidence in recent weeks, it should be a different story this year.