INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – He’s not been himself, not since week 14 at Houston when he ran a deep post, got behind rookie safety Justin Reid, snatched Andrew Luck’s laser out of the air for a 60-yard gain and was rolled to the turf.
T.Y. Hilton got up. And limped. His right ankle was sending jolts of distress.
Since then, the Indianapolis Colts’ big-play wideout has practiced once but remained Luck’s go-to guy. Including the Texans’ game – a 24-21 win – he’s had 23 catches and 483 yards on 34 targets.
Yet the ankle remains an issue.
Look at his constant status on the daily practice participation report. Wednesday, with Saturday’s first-round playoff meeting with Houston looming, he missed a fourth straight practice and has been held out of 9 of the last 10 to concentrate on treatment.
Watch him get up from a catch and notice the slight limp. Occasionally, a close-up shot on the TV broadcast reveals a grimace through his facemask.
And then there was Exhibit A of the lingering effects of an ankle injury that requires time to heal when the situation simply doesn’t allow it.
On second-and-6 at the Indy 10 in the second quarter Sunday evening at Tennessee, Hilton grabbed a bubble screen to the right, followed the blocks of Chester Rogers and Dontrelle Inman through a seam in the Titans defense and found himself in the open field. He appeared headed for what would have been the longest touchdown of his career.
If the ankle wasn’t bothering you, that’s a 90-yard TD, right?
“Oh, easy,’’ Hilton said with a smile. “Easy.’’
Everyone kept waiting for your top gear to kick in.
“I was waiting for it, too,’’ Hilton said. “I kept looking back like, ‘Why am I not pulling away?’’’
As the play unfolded in front of him, coordinator Nick Sirianni also believed Hilton’s balky ankle kept him from going the distance.
“I think I said that on our headset. Sound like you were listening on our headset,’’ he said. “I thought that in the game as well. I really did.’’
Instead of finishing in the Titans’ end zone, Hilton went down at the Tennessee 43-yard line as Malcolm Butler and Kevin Byard converged. Sirianni said a review of the video indicated the Titans DBs had a good angle and might have stopped even a pre-injury Hilton, but Hilton thought otherwise.
No matter. The bottom line is Hilton isn’t 100 percent. Not even close. He missed two games earlier this year after sustaining chest and shoulder injuries in the first meeting with Houston at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I’m not surprised anymore by T.Y.’’ Sirianni said. “He’s tough. He’s tough as nails. He’s a great football player. I just anticipate him being out there.
“I still think he’s moving. He’s making plays. He’s fighting through it and I don’t see a huge dropoff on T.Y. He’s still playing at a very high level.’’
Hilton is getting round-the-clock treatment, but the best elixir might be the upcoming meeting with the Texans and it occurring in Houston’s NRG Stadium.
“That’s probably why it’s starting to feel better,’’ he said with a wide grin.
His exploits against the Texans border on legendary. In 14 meetings, he’s averaged 5.4 receptions and 103 yards with 9 touchdowns. That’s a crisp 19 yards per catch. Consider his seven trips to Houston: 41 catches, 933 yards (22.8 per catch), seven TDs.
Hilton has compiled at least 100 yards seven times, including in both meetings this season – 9 catches, 199 yards in a week 13 win in Houston and 4 catches for 115 yards in a week 4 overtime loss in Indy.
Three of Hilton’s top four regular-season performances have come in Houston: 223 yards in 2014, 199 this season and 175 in 2017.
“You’ve got to just do the best you can to make sure that you know where he is,’’ Houston coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s a great player, T.Y. He’s an awesome route runner, he’s got great hands, speed. He can do it all.
“It’s going to be a tough task.’’
As much as the Colts lean on Hilton, they’ve seen his supporting cast steadily develop.
Dontrelle Inman, signed off the streets in mid-October, has emerged as the most reliable second option. He’s had at least four catches in five of nine games and has TD catches in the last two games. At Tennessee, Inman had five catches for 77 yards, both team highs. His 11-yard TD in the back of the end on a scramble play gave the Colts a 7-0 first-quarter lead.
Normally, it takes an offseason and months of practice for a quarterback and receiver to find their comfort zone.
“Not when you have a good quarterback,’’ said Inman, who’s worked with Luck for less than three months. “A good quarterback can throw to anybody. You see that with Tom Brady. The Patriots rotate the most receivers in the league and you can’t tell because he’s a good quarterback.
“I just have to do my job and catch the balls that come. If I do my job, I gain his trust. I think I’ve earned that trust.’’
Inman’s assimilation into the offense installed by Frank Reich and Sirianni has been accelerated by his familiarity with its basics. He was with the Chargers the last four seasons.
More than that, Inman has proven himself in the locker room, on the practice field and on game day.
“I think a locker room gets a sense very quickly for any guy,’’ Luck said. “In a sense, there is always a jury out when a new guy comes and fairly quickly I think we see the real person.
“Dontrelle has just been a pro. We’ve talked. We’ve talked about communicating. He understands football. He has been in this offense before. He started showing up at the right time in the right place. That’s music to a quarterback’s ears.’’
Reich stressed the importance of the offense maintaining a spread-it-around approach in the passing game. Seventeen different players have caught at least one pass. Luck tied an NFL record by spreading his 39 touchdown passes among 13 receivers.
The contributions of wideouts Inman, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal and Ryan Grant; tight ends Eric Ebron, Mo Alie-Cox Ryan Hewitt and running backs Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins have been critical.
“They’re doing a tremendous job and it shows,’’ Hilton said. “Andrew trusts them. That’s why he delivering the ball. They’re really making plays. They’re taking a heavy load off my shoulders.’’
At its core, though, the passing game feeds off Hilton. Even though he was clearly limited against the Titans, Reich stressed the importance of Hilton being on the field.
“We could feel it and sense it on the sideline,’’ Reich said of Hilton struggling with his ankle injury, “but . . . even him limited, we want him out there. He is willing to do that. He is willing to put himself out there.
“It is that much more important to spread it around and get everybody involved and then get him involved at the strategic times that we need him to make plays for us.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.