Explosive T.Y. Hilton, better run game keys to fixing Colts’ offense

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INDIANAPOLIS – Something’s clearly out of kilter.

After investing $25 million during the offseason in a new triggerman for their offense, the Indianapolis Colts are languishing in the bottom half of the league in too many meaningful statistical categories: 23rd in yards per game, 22nd in yards per play, 18th in passing, 20th in rushing yards per game, 31st in rushing yards per attempt, 27th in third-down efficiency and 29th in scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

They’re 17th in scoring, but have generated just eight TDs. The only teams with fewer: the winless New York Giants (five) and equally-winless New York Jets (six).

“It’s all of us together that have to get better for the product to be what we want it to be,’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni said.

That includes Philip Rivers, the $25 million QB1 who’s suffered four of his five interceptions and a safety in the losses at Jacksonville and Cleveland. Those mistakes aided the Jaguars and Browns with 19 points.

As spotty as Rivers has been, we’ve got two suggestions on ways to ease his burden and kick-start the offense.

Get T.Y. Hilton going. He’s your big-play wideout, remember?

Get the running game going. Run the damn ball, remember?

A glimpse at each:

Big plays have disappeared

Suddenly, Hilton’s nickname – the Ghost – has taken on negative connotations. He established himself as one of the NFL’s premier big-play threats over his first seven seasons, but recently hasn’t resembled that guy who routinely split safeties on a deep post or terrorized cornerbacks on deep outs or corner routes.

“I’ve just got to find a way to make more explosive plays. My team needs it,’’ Hilton said Thursday on a Zoom conference call. “They look for me to make the explosive plays, and I haven’t been doing that lately.’’

Lately is an understatement. That electric phase of Hilton’s game – the chunk receptions that lift the offense and demoralize a defense – have been missing since, well, since Andrew Luck retired.

In 2018, Luck and Hilton were pyrotechnics personified. Hilton piled up 1,270 yards and six TDs. He averaged 16.7 yards per catch and routinely churned out chunk plays, which are receptions that gain at least 20 yards.

The passing game had 53 chunk plays, including nine that picked up at least 30 yards and another seven that gained at least 40. Hilton accounted for 13 of those 30-plus yard receptions, and three topped 55 yards.

Since then? Not much. Over his last 15 games – 10 during an injury-plagued ’19 and the start of this season – he’s had two receptions of at least 30 yards, with a long of 35. His longest reception this season: 28 yards.

Hilton hasn’t had a 100-yard receiving game in his last 18 games, including the postseason.

We’re not buying this is a sign of a declining four-time Pro Bowl wideout. Hilton is 30, but still is a run-after-the-catch threat who possesses deep speed. He’s gotten behind the defense four times this season and enticed a league-high interference penalties that have resulted in 72 yards.

“It doesn’t feel the same when we get the penalties,’’ Frank Reich said, “but I have to remind myself that those are real yards.’’

And let’s not forget the 45-yard TD Hilton dropped against Minnesota when he lost Rivers’ pass in the glare of the sun pouring through the open roof at Lucas Oil Stadium.

So there have been a handful of opportunities for the Ghost to regain his game-breaking form. But overall, that’s been missing and that needs to be corrected.

“We’ve just gotta keep at it, stay with it and know it’s going to turn,’’ Hilton said.

It isn’t as if Rivers hasn’t noticed Hilton. He’s targeted him 32 times, which is 20.8% of Rivers’ attempts. That’s on par with how often Luck targeted Hilton in ’18 (22%).

However, that same chemistry isn’t there, which shouldn’t come as a surprise after the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated all offseason work and condensed training camp. When targeting Hilton, Rivers is completing just 59.4 percent of his passes with a 55.6 rating.

Sirianni has insisted the passing game goes through Hilton, and that was the case at Cleveland. He had his best game of the season – six catches, 69 yards – while being targeted 10 times.

“We’re always planning to get it to him,’’ Sirianni said.

Added Reich: “We’re always looking for ways to get him involved. He’s our No. 1 guy . . . (Hilton) is the speed guy that we still want to get him the chunk plays down the field so we have to continue to work on that.’’

Reputation on the line

The Colts are finding success comes at a cost. They featured the NFL’s 7th-ranked run game last season, and the 2,130 yards they amassed were the 9th-most in franchise history.

Five games into the season, that run game ranks 20th  in yards per game (105.9) and 31st in yards per attempt (3.6). Part of the problem has been the loss of Marlon Mack, who suffered a ruptured Achilles in the opener. Compounding things has been facing more “stacked’’ boxes.

According to ESPN’s Next Gen Stats, Taylor has faced at least eight defenders in the box on 27.3% of his 77 attempts. Last season, Mack faced eight-men fronts just 12.2% of the time.

“We had developed a reputation of having a great o-line and having a very good run game,’’ Reich said. “So one of the challenges was we are going to get everybody’s best because of the reputation that we built.

“Everyone is going to come in here (and) No. 1 on their agenda is going to be stop our run game because we’ve made no mistake about it, that that’s what we want to do. That’s the challenge we embrace, and if you want to be the best, you have to be able to handle that.’’

The Colts haven’t shied away from the run game. Their 147 attempts are 5th-most in the league. But only Washington (3.5) is averaging fewer yards per attempt. Also, they have just one run of 20 yards or longer, and Jordan Wilkins’ 22-yarder against the Jets is tied for a team’s shortest long run through five games.

Game situations have contributed to the lack of consistency with the run game, but so has an offensive line that ranks 24th in the league in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders.

Sunday would be an ideal time for the run game to get its act together.

First, Taylor is coming off a solid outing at Cleveland. He averaged a season-best 4.8 yards on 12 attempts. But that came on the team’s meekest outing: 68 yards on 18 attempts.

Second, the Bengals’ run defense ranks 30th in yards per game (159.0) and per attempt (5.2).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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