At 5-9, 178 pounds with sub-4.4 second 40-yard speed, T.Y. Hilton has the look and skill set of the prototypical NFL slot receiver. Summon the image of Wes Welker, if you will.
So interim Indianapolis Colts coach Bruce Arians raised some eyebrows last season when he was asked if Hilton has what it takes to be a No. 1 receiver.
“I think a solid No. 1,” Arians responded. “I do, which is surprising, because when we drafted him we thought he was just a kick returner.”
Arians, now head coach at Arizona, spoke on the eve of the 10th game of Hilton’s rookie season. The Colts will play the 10th game of the 2013 season Thursday night in an AFC South showdown at Tennessee.
T.Y. Hilton is their No. 1 receiver.
That it’s probably temporary and it comes by default — due to a season-ending knee injury to longstanding No. 1 Reggie Wayne — in no way diminishes Hilton’s qualifications or performance. In the two games since Wayne went down, Hilton has caught 14 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns.
Those are regal numbers arriving at record pace. Project them over a 16-game season and you have 112 receptions for 2,008 yards and 24 touchdowns.
The problem is that Hilton prospers alone.
Quarterback Andrew Luck’s passer rating when throwing to Hilton over those two games is 152.1 (158.3 is a “perfect” rating). Luck’s rating while throwing to the other receivers and tight end Coby Fleener is 52.6. Therein lie many of the offense’s difficulties during the 27-24 escape at Houston and the 38-8 splattering by St. Louis.
For all Hilton’s high achievement and the increase in passes to the running backs, the void opened by Wayne’s absence still gapes. The Colts are getting precious little from Darrius Heyward-Bey, Griff Whalen and LaVon Brazill, and not much more from Fleener.
“Losing a guy like Reggie, you can’t replace a guy like that, not only his leadership qualities but his production, obviously, on the field,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Guys have been pressed into action and they’ve got to respond.
“We’re seeing glimpses of what those guys can do, but they got to step up even further. They’ve got to raise their level of play.”
Heyward-Bey is the Colts’ 2013 version of their rent-a-receiver of a year ago, Donnie Avery. Both brought impressive speed. Both have proven to be inconsistent and uninspired. Heyward-Bey’s numbers since Wayne was lost are 12 targets, four catches, 41 yards, no touchdowns.
Whalen is an undrafted free agent who last year missed his entire rookie season with a broken foot. Brazill is a talented second-year player who has yet to make a dent. His unreliability caused the Colts to remove him from the return game last year and to favor Whalen this year. Whalen has played 87 snaps the past two games, Brazill 48.
Whalen and Brazill, who was suspended for the first four games this year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, not only had played a mere handful of game snaps before Wayne’s injury, they were getting few practice reps. They have been asked to come a long way fast, as has Da’Rick Rogers, a rookie signed from the practice to the active roster this week.
As Whalen pointed out, the receivers aren’t the only ones scrambling to make adjustments. Receivers coach Charlie Williams has to cope. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has to devise a game plan. Luck has to figure out how his new principals run routes, where they are going to be and when, and where to put the football.
“It takes a little time just to get into the game flow,” Whalen said. “We’ve been practicing all year but to do it in games, get the call, execute it under the time crunch when the bullets are flying, it’s a little different.”
Colts safety Antoine Bethea stressed that everyone has to step up when a player like Wayne goes down. Defensive end Cory Redding echoed Bethea. Redding said defense and special teams have to grab some slack.
They haven’t done that. The defense has struggled, special teams have struggled, everyone has struggled, none more than the offensive line.
The Colts yielded a single touchdown longer than 40 yards over their first seven games. They have given up six the past two games: passes of 62, 41, 57 and 81 yards, a punt return of 98 yards and a 45-yard fumble return after a strip-sack. A receiving group critically thin in experience and achievement can’t begin to cover that.
As Hilton said, “There is no replacing Reggie. We can get that out there right now,” but someone beside Hilton had better begin contributing. Hilton already is seeing the coverage roll his way.
“It’s been much different,” he said. “You know they’re going to start trying to take me out of the game. I know they’re going to start doubling me, tripling me, trying to take me out.
“Guys have got to step up and make plays.”