Colts will need ‘chunk plays’ from Hilton, others to make offense soar

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 05: T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts is forced out of bounds in the third quarter by Andre Hal #29 of the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on November 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

WESTFIELD, Ind. – Frank Reich’s offensive approach has been clear from the first day he settled into his multiple roles as head coach/offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.

The Indianapolis Colts will be aggressive and push tempo. Reich’s offense is all about utilizing multiple formations, spreading defenses, probing for mismatches and sharing the football. They’ll ask – OK, demand – Andrew Luck balance his risk-reward style with limiting those risks.

Reich realizes there will be situations when it’s prudent to grind it out, move the chains and mount 10-, 12-, 14-play drives.

“We want to do that and we will do that,” he said. “But the winning formula is chunk plays. It’s consistency, avoid the negative plays, don’t turn the ball over.

“But then you’ve got to have guys that can make those chunk plays so that it’s a 6-, 7-play drive rather than a 14-play drive.”

Reich has done his homework and, not surprisingly, it revealed how difficult it is to sustain drives against elite defenses. An offense can self-destruct with a holding penalty, a false start or yielding a sack.

“Just look at the stats,” Reich said.

Last season with Jacoby Brissett stepping in for the rehabbing Luck, the Colts generated 24 offensive TDs. Only seven (29 percent) consisted of at least 10 plays.

Conventional wisdom would be that the offense is better suited to sustain TD drives with Luck under center. Nope. It cranked out 45 in 2016, but just 13 (28.9 percent) involved at least 10 plays.

With training camp nearing its end at Grand Park, the Colts’ list of proven big-play artists remains short, and actually decreased when rookie Deon Cain suffered a season-ending knee injury Aug. 9 at Seattle.

The list: T.Y. Hilton. Consider the pyrotechnic nature of a six-year career that has resulted in four Pro Bowl selections and 467 receptions, including the postseason:

  • 32 catches have chewed up at least 40 yards, including touchdowns of 87, 80, 73, 73 and 70 yards.
  • 116 (24.8 percent) have gained at least 20 yards.
  • of his 36 career TD catches, 14 have covered at least 40 yards and nine at least 61 yards.
  • since 2013, Hilton has produced the second-most deep-passing yards in the NFL (2,213), according to Pro Football Focus. DeSean Jackson tops the list (2,255).

Hilton has been quick to embrace Reich, and the offense he brought with him from Super Bowl champion Philadelphia.

“He’s constantly in our meeting, explaining things, why we do this and making sure we know why we’re doing this, why we’re not doing this,” he said. “I think that helps us understand the plays better and understand why we’re running it.”

It’s clear Luck is in sync with Reich. The Colts, he insisted “are going to be good at doing everything and taking what the defense gives us. When it’s appropriate for the chunks, then we will be ready.”

Ready to dial up Hilton?

“When you’ve got guys like T.Y. Hilton, who are top of the league at making big plays happen,” Luck said, “you use them that way.”

That’s fine with Hilton.

“Just get the ball in my hands, allowing me to do things I’m able to do,” he said. “Get the tight ends involved, the running backs involved. It should be fun.”

Should be, but only if someone not named T.Y. Hilton emerges as a big-play threat. We’re not talking about tight end Jack Doyle, who’s Mr. Reliable over the middle. He’s averaged 8.5 yards on 174 regular-season receptions and has just 10 catches of at least 20 yards, none longer than 26.

We might be talking about free-agent Eric Ebron, who has proven to be a mismatch nightmare for the defense at training camp. But he’s averaged a modest 11.1 yards on 186 receptions and just two have covered more than 55 yards.

Chester Rogers? We’ll see. He has seven 20-plus-yard catches.

Ryan Grant? He’s been in camp what he was in four years in Washington, which is a dependable medium-range target for Luck. Grant has averaged 11.7 yards per catch during his career.

There’s every reason to expect Reich and Sirianni to maximize the game-breaking skills of running backs Marlon Mack and rookie Nyheim Hines. As a rookie in ’17, Mack cut loose with six rushes of at least 20 yards and five receptions of at least 20.

And here’s a wild card: tight end Erik Swoope. He missed last season with a knee injury, but in limited exposure in 2016, the former power forward had six receptions of at least 22 yards. Swoope possesses the size and speed to exploit coverage.

The various options aside, the brunt of the chunk plays need to come from the Hilton-led receivers. That, after all, is part of the positional job description.

That’s where the loss of Cain is felt the most. Throughout camp, the sixth-round draft pick out of Clemson had shown the ability to beat press coverage at the line, get down field, and make plays.

Cain’s rookie season ended Aug. 9 in Seattle when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees.

Until another wideout proves capable to stretching the field, defenses will be able to focus on Hilton. Using underneath crossing patterns and utilizing running backs will only do so much to alleviate the pressure.

“I’m not overly concerned about it because I think that’s part of our job,” Reich said. “T.Y. has proven over his career he is a vertical, chunk-play guy. I think a lot of what we do in the offense . . . there are multiple ways to get chunk plays.

“You’ll see us do a lot of stuff schematically . . . we hit one or two of them (recently). We hit a shallow route where the ball is traveling about 10 yards in the air, and it’s a 25-yard gain based on some things schematically and coverage.

“If we can do that, I think we can expand guys who get in that big playmaker category.”

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51