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Jeremy Hill was easy to tackle for much of 2015, but that won't last

It's ok to say Jeremy Hill had a down 2015 season. Just don't be foolish enough to think it will happen again this coming season.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

For most of the 2015 season, the Bengals had one of the NFL's most explosive and balanced offenses, despite one of the team's biggest weapons struggling much of the year.

While the passing game got much of the focus and attention, the ground game was effective at different points last season, though it never could find the rhythm or consistency it had in 2014. That's also how you could describe the season as a whole for Jeremy Hill, who was unable to build off a magical rookie year in which he carried Cincinnati into the playoffs.

The Bengals' second-round pick out of LSU in the 2014 NFL Draft quickly ascended into a big role for an offense that desperately needed one with a host of injuries leaving them depleted that year. 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 an elite NFL back.

However, the dreaded sophomore slump came into play for Hill in 2015. 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 scoring nine times as a rookie. Hill also had three fumbles in the regular season and one in the postseason, the latter being one he and Bengals fans will never forget.

Overall, Hill was far too easy to bring down throughout the year, and that's why his big-yard plays dropped off. That's also why ESPN's Sheil Kapadia had Hill ranked as one of the NFL's worst backs of 2015 when it came to how easy it was to bring him down.

Jeremy Hill: He is one of the more fascinating players on this list. As a rookie in 2014, Hill looked every bit the part of a physical runner, averaging 2.29 yards after contact, fourth-best in the NFL. But last year, that number plummeted to 1.46, fourth-worst, and it's tough to figure out a reasonable explanation why. Hill will once again join Giovani Bernard in the Cincinnati Bengals' backfield and will try to regain the form he showed in his first NFL season.

Hill was used most frequently in the red zone and converted most of his goal-line carries into scores, so a lot of his carries came against a loaded box. Hill does almost all of his damage inside of the tackles, so bigger plays can be harder to come by in general for him, but it still doesn't explain his major drop off from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign..

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. Adding to that, Hill's last 111 carries of the season (including the playoffs) netted 440 yards, a healthy 4.0 ypc and seven touchdowns.

His biggest runs were also much more effective than the first half of the season. In his first 10 games, Hill's longest runs per game was a mere average of just 9.4 yards. But over his final seven games, Hill's longest runs netted an average of 20.4 yards.

That included a pair of 38 yards run over the final two games as Hill became a much harder back to tackle, whether it was more broken tackles or missed tackles he forced. Earlier in the year, Hill was an easy back to bring down because of his lack of vision when he got the ball and hesitancy hitting whatever holes came for him.

Whether it was taking a handoff or catching a pass, Hill was for too hesitant and dancy early in the season, which allowed even the lightest of defensive backs to take him down with little-to-no gain.

But as the season wore on, Hill regained his confidence, burst, vision and ability to make guys miss in space, leading to more quality runs that kept the Bengals offense moving.

It also led to some of Hill's biggest runs of the year, one of which came in the Wild Card game, where Hill displayed great burst and commitment to hitting the hole and lateral quickness to make a man miss.

Oh, and most of that resurgence came with defenses loading the box more with Andy Dalton out as they tried to force a ripe AJ 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 other than Bernard, who is best served in a dual-threat role in which he does a lot of damage in the passing game. Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead are  set to hit free agency in March 2017.

Even if one or more of those guys are re-signed while Bernard remains in Cincy for the foreseeable future, Hill should remain the bell-cow back in this offense until someone takes the job from him.