Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton still hooking up, especially in the red zone in ‘18

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 14: Quarterback Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass against the New York Jets during the second quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – We’re seeing a different side of T.Y. Hilton, and that’s not a bad thing. Not at all.

Over the first six seasons of his decorated career, Hilton established himself as one of the NFL’s elite playmakers. His next play might start with a burst of speed that leaves a defensive back in his wake and end with him in the end zone raising his arms in his signature TY, TY, TY celebration.

“He’s dynamic,’’ said Andrew Luck, Hilton’s pitch-and-catch sidekick. “We know he can make the long 60- or 70-yarders, as I think of it (as) the classic T.Y. plays.’’

You can look it up on YouTube. Of Hilton’s 38 career receiving touchdowns, nine have covered at least 58 yards. Five have exceeded 70, two have been 80-plus. They’ve averaged a crisp 34.9 yards.

And that brings us to that different side of Hilton. That brings us to 2018.

He has the Colts’ longest receptions through seven games – 42- and 40-yarders against Houston in week 4 – but is averaging a career-low 12.8 yards per catch. That’s 3 yards fewer than his per-catch average during his first six seasons, and a clear byproduct of Frank Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni dialing up fewer home run shots and relying more on quicker throws and intermediate routes.

But the real difference in Hilton’s game has been his contributions in the red zone.

The number that jumps off the page: 14. That’s the total yardage of Hilton’s four TDs. A pair of 5-yarders (against the Bills and Bengals), a 3-yarder at Washington and a 1-yarder against the Bills.

Hilton’s four red-zone TDs already exceed the most he’s had in a season, which was three in 2015.

“We want to get good players the ball as much as we possibly can and T.Y. has just got a knack for making plays,’’ Sirianni said. “Sometimes it’s not even open. He just makes a play.

“Which is kind of what happened in the game the other night.’’

Facing a third-and-4 at the Bills 5-yard line late in the second quarter Sunday afternoon, Luck had to vacate the pocket to avoid pressure from Trent Murphy. He drifted to his right, buying time. Hilton was lined up to the right of the formation and darted to the middle of the end zone at the snap. When Luck began flowing to the right, he followed him to offer a scramble-drill option.

Just as Luck approached the sideline, he snapped a pass back to Hilton, who had found a crease between Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and made a sliding catch.

“Few guys can do the sort of play breaks down, playground-style of just running around,’’ Luck said. “He has incredible football instincts, but at the same time plays with a sharp discipline. He does a heckuva job of finding space and just feeling things.’’

In the fourth quarter, Luck again dialed up Hilton. It was third-and-goal at the 1 and Luck rolled to his right, this time by design. Out of the right slot, Hilton ran a quick out and beat rookie corner Taron Johnson at the right pylon.

“That might not be a spectacular 60-yard, classic T.Y. Hilton touchdown, but it is so impressive to watch him create space with leverage working against him,’’ Luck said. “He does the little things right.’’

The latter point-blank TD exemplified the trust that has developed between Luck and Hilton, according to Reich.

“That’s not a gimme thing,’’ he said. “You’ve got to have so much trust in your receiver running that thing because that could be 99 yards the other way.

“That’s the kind of route that you just got to believe and T.Y. brings that.’’

Luck won’t argue the point.

“Absolutely,’’ he said. “I think trust is a cornerstone for any relationship, especially in a football locker room. Whether it’s between a lineman and a quarterback or wide receivers.

“I remember hearing Marvin Harrison talk about Reggie (Wayne) in his Hall of Fame speech: ‘I trusted that Reggie was going to clear out the other side if I was running across the field.’

“Trust certainly is a cornerstone of this locker room.’’

Hilton has appeared in four Pro Bowls, including last season when Luck was out with his right shoulder issues. But let’s not kid ourselves, Hilton is at his absolute best when he shares the field with Luck.

“Seven years together,’’ Hilton said. “We’ve had a lot of practice and a lot of games. We’ve got a feeling for one another. We worked out in Miami together.

“We’ve got a lot of trust in each other.’’

There’s no dismissing and hardly a surprise how Hilton’s game elevates with Luck delivering the passes. In his 73 regular-season games with Luck, Hilton is averaging 8.5 targets, 4.9 receptions and 76 yards per game. In 26 without him, the numbers dip to 7, 3.8 and 53.6.

As the Colts headed into training camp at Grand Park in Westfield in late July, Hilton fielded question after question regarding how long it would take for him and Luck to reconnect, to recapture their rhythm and timing. Luck barely threw with teammates during offseason work. The last time he and Hilton really went after it was during the final week of the 2016 season, and against Jacksonville in the season finale.

Hilton always had a way of dismissing the notion it would take weeks, even a month, to knock off the rust.

“Just like when you wake up, you brush your teeth and wash your face,’’ he said. “It’s easy for us.’’

And that’s finally translating into more productivity in the red zone.

“Just a trust factor,’’ Hilton said. “Sometimes it’s a run play and we give each other that look and he comes to me.’’

Luck insisted Reich and Sirianni have had “great plans’’ in the red zone. The Colts rank 9th in the league in red-zone efficiency, scoring 18 TDs on 28 trips (64.3 percent) inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Since going 1-for-5 in the 20-16 loss at Philadelphia, they’re 13-for-17 (76.5 percent).

And consider Luck’s red-zone numbers in his comeback season: 31-of-48, 212 yards, 16 touchdowns, 1 interception, a 105.2 rating. The 16 TD passes have come following his interception against Cincinnati, which happened to be his first pass of the season and first in 21 months.

“We’ve got great plans in the red zone,’’ Luck said.

That includes spreading the wealth. Six different players have contributed to Luck’s 16 red-zone TDs: tight end Eric Ebron (five), Hilton (four), tight end Erik Swoope (three), running back Nyheim Hines (two) and wideouts Zach Pascal (one) and Ryan Grant (one).

“It’s everybody pitching in together,’’ Luck said.

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