INDIANAPOLIS – You just never know when the opportunity will present itself and you’ll have to make that play.
You know, that moment when you emerge from a pile of chaos with a critical fumble recovery. Or you chase down a ball carrier and punch the football loose. Or you make catch in a crowd when that’s exactly what was needed at the time.
Reggie Wayne recently preached that message to his receivers’ room. And Michael Pittman Jr. was listening, because he always listens.
“Reggie talked about it,’’ Pittman said. “He told us, ‘You never know what play springs the next big play.’’’
In Sunday’s overtime win at Baltimore, there were perhaps a dozen plays that carried more significance than others. And we’re not even talking about Matt Gay’s NFL-record four field goals that covered at least 50 yards, including the deciding 53-yarder in the 22-19 victory.
No one should have been surprised that Pittman had a hand in at least two. Each was a testament to his hustle and physicality.
Wayne is in his second year as the Colts’ receivers’ coach, and has come to expect such moments from Pittman.
“He’s pretty much the leader in our room,’’ Wayne said Thursday. “I’m always using Pitt as the example: ‘Look, he could have quit on this play, but he hustled after it.’’’
The play in question was Pittman’s fumble recovery at the end of the first half.
Ravens’ safety Kyle Hamilton bore in from the right side of Gardner Minshew’s protection – for a third time in the half, for cryin’ out loud – and forced a fumble. Quenton Nelson kept Jeremiah Moon from completing a scoop-and-run, and Minshew arrived to interfere with Brandon Stephens’ recovery attempt.
It was Pittman who emerged with the football. His role on the third-and-9 play was to deliver a downfield block for a teammate.
“Without giving up too much scheme, my job was to be in front of somebody,’’ he said. “But it didn’t work out. Q was actually the first one. Hustled in, knocked somebody who was going for it and then Gardner was the second one and he knocked somebody else. I was just there and able to jump on the ball. Those two guys just made a great play and I was able to stop what would have been a horrible play.’’
Twenty-seven seconds remained in the second quarter, with the Colts holding a 10-7 lead. A Ravens’ recovery could have resulted in a long Justin Tucker field goal, or worse.
It wasn’t happenstance. It was putting action to the urgings of Wayne every day in the receivers room and Steichen whenever he addresses the team. One of Steichen’s four core pillars: Relentless.
“The fumble play kind of shows it when everybody was hustling and we were able to save what would have been a really bad play and turn it into a punt,’’ Pittman said. “Those hustle plays we’re starting to see.’’
In the first quarter, it was rookie corner JuJu Brents chasing down Ravens running back Kenyan Drake and punching the football out of his hands following a 24-yard catch-and-run. That kept Baltimore from possibly grabbing an early 14-0 lead.
Wayne offered a quiet nod as he replayed Pittman’s fumble recovery in his mind.
“He hustled,’’ he said. “He did the same thing in the preseason. And he does it all the time. He was doing it before I got here, but I always remind the guys, ‘Help your buddy. Go help him out.’ You see Q do it all the time. First one there. You never know what’s going to happen. He just hustles, man. He just sees someone in distress, and he hustles and goes after it. That’s not lucky. That’s all effort. That’s all want-to.’’
Which brings us to another of Pittman’s signature moments in Baltimore.
With the offense backed up at its own 11 and Minshew facing a second-and-10 4 minutes into overtime, Pittman high-pointed a 34-yard reception between Stephens and safety Geno Stone. He secured the catch despite Stephens yanking his helmet off.
“Gardner threw a great pass and I was able to hang onto it,’’ Pittman said. “All of a sudden I can see the ball clear. It’s probably going to be easy.
“Then all of a sudden, darkness: Hand, facemask, chin strap.’’
Again, Wayne’s appreciation for his top receiver was evident.
“That was a huge catch. It was major,’’ he said. “I told him after the game, ‘That’s what separates the average from the elite.’’’
The Colts weren’t able to sustain the drive. Four plays later, Zack Moss was unable to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Ravens’ 1.
But Pittman’s 34-yarder got Indy out of a deep hole.
Steichen made it a point to single out Pittman and Nelson in the aftermath of the win.
“To me on offense, there’s a lot of tough guys,’’ he said. “But Quenton Nelson and Michael Pittman Jr. are the definition of tough.
“They’re resilient and they just make plays.’’
The Colts returned home with a 2-1 record when Gay’s 53-yard field goal was dead solid perfect.
Credit Gay, of course.
And credit Pittman, Brents and several other Colts –Nelson, Moss, Zaire Franklin, E.J. Speed and so many others – for making the hustle/relentless plays when it mattered.
Pittman always has been one of the Colts more physical players. There have been times he’s sought out contact after making a catch.
When Steichen first met the team during the offseason, he anointed Pittman the ‘Enforcer.’
“Pitt kind of sets the tone for that receiver room,’’ he said. “The reason he’s the enforcer is because he’s the force-block guy. He goes in and makes those big-time blocks.’’
Everyone assumes Pittman inherited his physical style from his father. Michael Pittman was an attacking running back for 11 NFL seasons, and earned a Super Bowl championship with Tampa Bay in 2002.
Pittman insisted he developed that style at an early age.
“Nobody really taught me that,’’ he said. “Just being rough when I was playing with my cousins, playing tag. And playing tackle football when you’re 5 years old. We’re in the park and really hitting each other with kids that were 12.
“I wouldn’t say it is anything I’ve tried to dol. It just happened.’’
If a time ever comes when Wayne needs a friend in a difficult situation, he plans on looking up Pittman.
“I’ve said all the time that if I’m in an alley and I’m backed up against a wall, Pitt is one of the dudes I would want in that alley with me,’’ Wayne said with a smile. “He’ll keep trying.
“Now, we may get messed up, but we’re going down fighting, you know what I mean? And that’s all you can ask for.’’
Pittman is off to one of the best starts since at least 1970 with 25 receptions for 230 yards and one TD. The only Colts with more receptions in the first three games of a season are Marvin Harrison (28 in 1999) and Austin Collie (27 in ’10).
He’s had at least eight catches in all three games.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.