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Bengals 2015 Exit Interview: Running back Jeremy Hill

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Jeremy Hill may have took a step back in 2015, but he still has the makings of a star running back in this league.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

For much of the 2015 season, the Bengals had one of the NFL's most explosive and balanced offenses that seemed good enough to carry the team on a Super Bowl run.

While the passing game got much of the focus and attention, the ground game was effective at different points this past season, though it never could find the rhythm or consistency it had in 2014. That also sums up how Jeremy Hill's season was overall in 2015.

The Bengals' second-round pick out of LSU in the 2014 NFL Draft quickly ascended into a star role for an offense that desperately needed one with a host of injuries leaving them depleted. He gashed opposing defenses during his final nine games of the regular season, posting 929 yards (105 more than any other player) and 5.4 yards per carry (also the highest during that stretch). That included three runs of at least 60 yards as he appeared on the verge of becoming a superstar back.

But the sophomore slump was clearly in effect this past season as Hill struggled to find that same magic that helped him dominate the league as a rookie. He finished the year with just 794 yards on 224 carries (3.6 ypc), but did score 12 total touchdowns (11 rushing, 1 receiving) after netting nine scores as a rookie. He also had three fumbles in the regular season and one in the postseason, the latter being one he and Bengals fans will never forget.

Hill was almost exclusively used in the red zone and converted most of his goal-line carries into scores. He wasn't much of a pass-catcher coming into the season, but managed to go from 27 grabs for 215 yards in 2014 to 15 grabs for 79 yards in 2015. Frankly, Hill does almost all of his damage inside of the tackles, which makes him easier to defend than a back like Giovani Bernard.

While Hill's 2015 season wasn't what the Bengals anticipated for him, he did average 84.4 total yards per game over his last three games, including the playoffs. Digging further, his last 111 carries of the season (including the playoffs) netted 440 yards, a healthy 4.0 ypc and seven scores.

He also broke off two 38-yard runs in the final two games after his previous longest in the first 15 games was 17. This, despite defenses loading the box more with Dalton out as they tried to force McCarron to beat them.

It also has to be pointed out that the Bengals faced an onslaught of great run-stuffing units, including the No. 1 (Seattle), No. 3 (Denver), No. 5 (Pittsburgh twice), No. 6 (Arizona), No. 8 (Kansas City), No. 10 (Houston) and No. 12 (Baltimore twice) run defenses.

It's rare a running back faces that many great run defenses in one season, and it helps explain why Hill's numbers dropped off. It will be interesting to see how he responds in 2016 as he's still just 23-years-old and theoretically still has a lot of room to grow into a star NFL back.

Hill is also the only back on the roster signed through the 2017 season as both Bernard, Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead are currently set to hit free agency next offseason. Even if one or more of those guys are re-signed, Hill will remain the bell-cow back in this offense until someone else proves worthy of the role.