INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Frank Reich had done his homework while getting up to speed on the offensive personnel he was inheriting.
As the Indianapolis Colts’ first-year head coach went down the list and came to the team’s playmaking, multiple Pro Bowl receiver, Reich was comfortable with his assessment of T.Y. Hilton.
Or so he thought.
“I probable fell into this trap when I first got here,’’ Reich said. “You think T.Y. is the speed guy. He’s the guy that can get over the top.’’
Of course he is.
Hilton is a speed guy who can rip the top off a defense. In his first six seasons, he averaged 15.8 yards on 431 receptions. His 34 receiving touchdowns included a slew of long-distance numbers. Four covered 70 yards or more, including a pair of 80-plus yarders.
But the more Reich was around Hilton, the more he saw the full extent of his repertoire.
“This guy is an elite route runner,’’ Reich said. “I mean, he’s an elite route runner.’’
It took a few skull sessions with Andrew Luck for Reich to fully understand how instincts played a significant role in Hilton’s game.
“Andrew told me that right from the start,’’ he said. “‘Frank, he does some unorthodox things in his route running, but I’m just telling you you’re going to learn to trust him like I’ve learned to trust him. He has this unique ability to understand leverage and spacing.’
“This was Andrew speaking: ‘I’ve just learned to trust him. I have a feel for him and you’re going to see it.’ And he was exactly right.’’
That’s never been more evident than over the past five games, or after Hilton endured a 1-catch, 34-yard outing at Oakland in week 9. Hilton’s five-game output: 36 receptions, 633 yards, two touchdowns. Luck has targeted him on 51 of his 188 attempts and posted a 117.5 passer rating during that stretch when going to his pitch-and-catch sidekick since 2012.
Ask around the building and everyone insists there hasn’t been a stronger commitment to get Hilton his catches and yards since the quiet Raiders game. That game, it must be noted, saw Oakland concentrate on not letting him do any damage, which opened things up for Jack Doyle, Dontrelle Inman, Eric Ebron and Mo Alie-Cox.
Getting Hilton involved always in Priority 1.
“We know he is our best playmaker,’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “We know he is one of the better players in the league at his position and one of the better playmakers in the league at any position. So it is always been in mind to get him the football.
“But sometimes it just goes in ebbs and flows and Oakland was a quiet game and a couple of games prior to that (were) a quiet game, but you know we have seen an explosion since then.’’
Hilton once again went off against Houston with nine catches and 199 yards. It was his 12th game with at least 150 yards, eclipsing Marvin Harrison’s team record. Harrison had 11 in 190 games. Hilton’s 12 have come in 105.
Hilton needs 14 yards to join Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne as the only Colts with at least five 1,000-yard seasons.
“Every game that T.Y.’s in there’s a concerted effort to get him the ball,’’ Luck said. “He’s special. He does things really, really well. I don’t think I can put a finger on what changed necessarily.
“It’s probably obvious to anyone watching what kind of spark T.Y. provides for our team when he gets the ball in his hands.’’
The offense was languishing early last Sunday at Houston. Everything changed midway through the second quarter when Reich sent Hilton on a deep post, Luck delivered a laser and Hilton ran under it for a 60-yard completion.
Sirianni praised Hilton for being effective on screens and underneath routes, but admitted the chunk plays are “big for any offense.
“I can’t remember exactly what he averaged last game . . . I don’t know the math on that, but that’s a heck of an average.’’
It was 22.1 per catch.
“So, yeah, the explosive plays go up when he is doing that,’’ Sirianni said.
Hilton remained patient during those quiet games, biding his time, confident his time would come.
“Just taking what the defenses are giving,’’ he said. “Coaches are doing a great job of moving me, putting me in position to thrive.
“Me and Andrew, after that we just do what we do.’’
Reich and Sirianni have maximized Hilton’s skills and made it more difficult for defenses by moving him around in the formation. On his nine catches at Houston, five came with him on the left side of the formation and four from the right side. On his 60-yarder, Hilton was lined up in the slot to the left, just inside Ryan Grant.
The synergy between Luck and Hilton was featured on their 29-yard collaboration in the fourth quarter. Hilton was on the right of the formation and faced press coverage from Johnathan Joseph. Despite Joseph’s tight coverage, Luck went to Hilton, who adjusted and made the back-shoulder catch.
Luck routinely points to his long history with Hilton when asked about their success, the thousands upon thousands of shared throws and practice time.
“We don’t need an offseason together,’’ he said. “On the first day you pick up where you leave off. I know how to read his body language. I like to think he knows how to read mine.
“That only comes with years and year and years of reps.’’
That still-evolving relationship has allowed Luck to fully comprehend the intricacies of Hilton’s game.
“T.Y. has a unique way of doing things that I don’t think many others can quite replicate,’’ Luck said. “And he does those things very, very well. This is our seventh year together and I appreciate what he brings to the table.
“He just does some really, really cool stuff. He does some things maybe a little differently than other guys would, but it works.’’
Sirianni smiled when asked about the unique ways Hilton runs routes. It reminded him of Kennan Allen when he was in San Diego.
“Keenan Allen has that same type of ‘Nobody is running the route like this except T.Y. or nobody is running the route like this except Keenan Allen,’’’ Sirianni said, “but it’s really working for him.
“So a good coach just steps back and says, ‘Hey, keep doing it that way. That looks pretty good.’’’
Sirianni added the new offensive coaches were aware of Hilton’s pedigree when they arrived earlier this year.
“We knew how good of a football player he was and part of it is Andrew does a great job of getting him the football and a lot of it is T.Y. is just a phenomenal football player,’’ he said. “So we trusted his background and his stats and his Pro Bowl appearances and his touchdowns and his beating Marvin Harrison’s record and all that stuff spoke for itself.
“We trusted Andrew and T.Y.’s stat line.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.