Andre Johnson makes hard catches look easy

Andre Johnson made his first catch as a member of the Indianapolis Colts — his first as a member of any team not named the Houston Texans — and it was about as routine as it gets.

The veteran receiver hopped to his feet after being tackled, handed the ball to an official, then jogged, expressionless, to the sideline.

But this was no run-of-the-mill catch by Johnson, one of the Colts’ prized free agents inspiring this team’s high hopes. Then again, Johnson making catches against airtight pass coverage does pass for garden variety for the seven-time Pro Bowl selection.

It’s what he does. He makes tough catches look easy.

“I think that’s the mark of a great wide receiver, a great athlete,” quarterback Andrew Luck said, “to make something very hard look easy and simple and smooth. He does that.”

So, that 8-yard slant Johnson caught on Sunday against Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll on third-and-8 during the preseason opener was, perhaps, not as routine as it appeared. That said, prepare yourself to see that on an absolute regular basis.

Ever wonder how Johnson has managed five seasons with more than 100 catches despite average to below-average Houston quarterbacks throwing him the football? It’s simple: by catching any and every pass that comes his way, no matter how well he might be defended.

“I think it’s a skill set as well as his God-given ability to go up and jump high and have the hand-eye coordination to make some amazing catches,” Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “His catch radius is off the charts as well as the fact that Andre is a big, physical, strong man that understands how to leverage and use his body to give him an opportunity to make those plays.”

That’s a fancy way of saying that Johnson is among the best there is at using his size.

He’s certainly a big receiver, and that’s a huge reason for Johnson’s ability to make these contested catches. But even though he’s 6-3 and 230 pounds, this is about more than mere size. At work are several factors, including Johnson’s unwavering concentration and the necessary toughness to make catches in traffic, sometimes in spite of multiple defenders.

There’s just a dash of basketball in the mix, too. Johnson dabbled in hoops at Miami (Fla.) Senior High School, a perennial state power that boasts 18 state titles. Thankfully for the Colts, he’s retained a bit of what he learned on the hardwood.

“I think maybe it’s just something you get over time, practicing with the quarterback,” Johnson said of his difficult catches. “When he sees you make those plays, just knowing how to use your body and stuff like that to box guys out for the ball, it just gives him confidence that when people think you’re covered, you’re not really covered. That’s what I try to do on my end.”

Just as it’s a key factor playing in the post, position is everything in battles between receivers and defensive backs. And when the quarterback comes to expect that Johnson will find a way, Luck won’t hesitate to give him a chance.

That’s why Luck confidently stepped into that third-down throw in Philadelphia despite the lack of any perceptible daylight between Johnson and the defender.

“You understand that what may not look like a wide-open route, with Andre it really is because he’s so big, he’s so physical and does such a great job contorting his body to shield the defender away or to put that ball in a safe place,” Luck said. “So, it’s been fun to see how his body moves and see him go up and make some plays.”

The sample size in game action, so far, is small. Johnson played two offensive series Sunday and made just the one catch. Maybe he will add to the tally Saturday night against the Chicago Bears in the second game of the preseason. Regardless, he’s supplied an endless number of examples over the previous 12 seasons in Houston. Some of Johnson’s most memorable moments are catches in which he wrested a ball away from a defensive player or effortlessly snatched it out of the air.

Colts cornerback Vontae Davis has been on the wrong end of a handful of such plays during their twice-annual duels between AFC South foes Houston and Indianapolis.

There are more recent examples, too, like those displayed on the practice field during training camp. Johnson went airborne on consecutive days last week to make highlight-worthy catches down the middle of the field. They weren’t the most accurate throws by Luck, and maybe Luck wouldn’t attempt such a throw to other receivers. But Johnson’s track record demands that he be given such opportunities.

In each of those instances, when he made stunning catches in camp, Johnson reacted just as he did in Philadelphia last Sunday. He casually walked back to the huddle as if nothing phenomenal had just unfolded.

And, to Johnson, perhaps it wasn’t phenomenal. Because, remember, this is what Johnson does.

He makes tough catches look easy.

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