Hillis injury could be crushing for Denver

December, 8, 2008
12/08/08
8:55
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Hillis

What are the Denver Broncos going to do at running back?

It is a question the Broncos ask every few weeks. The question is necessary now that rookie Peyton Hillis has been lost for the season with a hamstring injury.

Hillis, a converted fullback, was doing a nice job for Denver. Don't get me wrong, Hillis wasn't to be confused for Adrian Peterson and he wasn't reminding the Broncos of the Clinton Portis days. But Hillis was efficient and he was working very well as part of Denver's offense. He fit the running scheme.

Now, Denver has to start over again. And this will be the greatest challenge of its running back carousal this season.

As Denver tries to clinch the AFC West, it will need a balanced offense. However, Denver may not be able to find that balance.

Hillis was Denver's fifth tailback to suffer a season-ending injury. A sixth, Selvin Young, has missed two months. While Denver was able to cobble together a decent running game through all the injuries, it may be tough now. Denver's lead back is now Tatum Bell. He was out of football a month ago.

While Bell had a 28-yard run Sunday against Kansas City, it was clear Denver coach Mike Shanahan didn't yet trust Bell with the game on the line. Denver was running end-arounds with receivers rather than giving Bell significant carries. You think Shanahan remembers the end of the 2006 season when Bell's fumbling issues led directly to Denver missing the playoffs?

Now, Shanahan is down to Bell. Young is close to coming back but he wasn't a favorite of the coaching staff at the time of his injury. The team also has P.J. Pope and Cory Boyd, who is being promoted from the practice squad. Neither of those players have any significant experience.

Denver's running game has always gotten by. Shanahan, who many in the league believe is doing one of his best coaching jobs in this injury-riddled season, will have hope his penchant for making something out of lesser tailbacks continues.

If not, the there will be even more pressure on quarterback Jay Cutler, who threw 40 passes Sunday.

The loss of Hillis could be the most untimely and debilitating because there is little left in the cupboard.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter

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