The old adage in boxing is if you pound away at the body, the head will fall. When the Jets visit the Browns this afternoon, Rex Ryan's defense will stare down at a relentless body attacker in Peyton Hillis.
"They're playing very physical up front. Everything starts with Peyton Hillis," said middle linebacker David Harris. "He's a big guy, a big load, he runs hard, and he's been their main point of the offense. Our first goal is to stop the run."
The 6'1", 240-pound Hillis, in his third year out of Arkansas, is averaging 4.8 yards per carry and his 644 yards on the ground ranks 11th in football. He pulverized the Patriots in a Week 9 upset, churning out 184 rush yards on 29 carries with two TDs and adding three receptions for 36 yards.
"Strong powerful back, likes to run downhill," said OLB Jason Taylor. "He's not real interested in making you miss — I think he'd rather run through you than have to try to run around you. You put the tape on and very quickly see the type of player he is and obviously why you have to respect him."
Hillis has already set career bests in rushing yards and rush touchdowns (seven) and in receiving yards (229) as well. He is a true dual threat and his 30 receptions trail only TE Ben Watson for the team lead (31).
"He has very soft hands for a guy that size," Harris said. "He's a complete back. You can't sleep on him. He's faster than what everybody thinks."
The Jets, who own the NFL's fourth-ranked rush defense (87.4 yards allowed per game), can't sleep on Cleveland. Perhaps the Browns caught both the defending champion Saints and the Patriots napping in Week 7 and Week 9 respectively, but the Green & White will have no excuses.
New York's AFC representative has used fourth-quarter rallies to win their past two road games, at Denver and at Detroit, but the 6-2 Jets haven't played a complete game in weeks. They most recently escaped the Lions with an overtime win after facing a 10-point deficit with 4:26 left in regulation.
"I'm talking about putting points on the board early because with the style of offense they run, they milk the clock. They'll hand it off to Hillis 40 times a game," said WR Braylon Edwards, who was drafted by the Browns, played with them from 2005-09, and will make his second homecoming in as many weeks after playing in his hometown of Detroit.
The Browns cruised in New Orleans after taking a 20-3 halftime lead and then they got to a 10-0 advantage on the Pats when you could still see smoke coming from the starter's gun.
"If you get into a situation where you fall behind and they have the ball, you're in trouble," said Edwards. "They may not score a lot of points, but at the same time, they're milking that clock, which puts you in a situation to press your offense when you get the ball and you may not be calling the things that you have to call. We have to score fast and we have to score touchdowns."
Nobody wants to play from behind, but the Browns would be in a whole mess of trouble if the Green & White stormed out in front. Colt McCoy, an impressive-looking rookie who's completing 68 percent of his passes, is making just his fourth start. He doesn't have your prototypical weapons at the X and Z positions and the Browns are not trying to put too much on his young shoulders.
"They're making it very simple for him," said CB Darrelle Revis. "I don't think you want to put a lot of pressure on a rookie quarterback, but I think he's managed to handle the pressure very well. It's a learning curve for him, but he's progressing every week and you can see that. If you do have a great running game, it does take a load off the quarterback."
"If his first two reads out there, he's putting the ball down and taking off with it," added Harris of the crafty Colt. "He's a good athlete who can throw the ball on the run, so he's very well-rounded."
But the bull's-eye is on the big back. Jets Nation might recall a 129-yard, one-TD ground effort from Hillis, and then with Denver, on Nov. 30, 2008, that started a post-Thanksgiving malaise for the Jets. They wound up dropping four of their final five games and Eric Mangini, the current Browns boss, was fired and replaced by Rex Ryan.
Mangini hopes Hillis will again find success against the Jets, but Ryan, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and a talented crew will have something to say about it. The Jets have surrendered just one 100-yard rusher in regular-season action since Ryan took over. If they slow Hillis, then it will be time to show off some different alignments for McCoy.
"If you get them outside the scheme they want to do, then you can throw more looks at them and try to confuse them a bit more," Taylor said. "There are things he hasn't seen yet obviously because he just got in this league, but if you don't force that on him, then it won't make a difference."
The tale of the tape today favors the Jets in so many categories, but Hillis and the Browns have a puncher's chance.
"You put the tape in and you watch the last two teams the Browns beat," said Taylor, "and if it doesn't keep you up a little later at night, something's wrong."