Colts trying to make passing game work without ‘The Guy’

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American Football – First and goal – Close up of football inches from the goal line

INDIANAPOLIS – For the better part of a quarter-century, there’s been “The Guy.”

Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton. When careers overlapped, there were two No. 1s.

Since 1996, guys named Harrison, Wayne and Hilton led the Indianapolis Colts’ in receptions and/or receiving yards in 22 of 24 seasons. They were the featured guy, always in the crosshairs of opposing defensive coordinators yet routinely cranking out eight or nine receptions and 100-plus yards.

No longer.

While so many teams across the NFL landscape possess that no-doubt No. 1 receiver – think of DeAndre Hopkins in Arizona, Davante Adams in Green Bay, Julio Jones in Atlanta, a healthy Michael Thomas in New Orleans, Stefon Diggs in Buffalo to name a few – the Colts find themselves relying on a more diversified approach.

In last Sunday’s 20-point win at Detroit, Philip Rivers passed for 262 yards and three touchdowns in the most unorthodox of ways. He delivered passes to 11 different players, but none had more than three. Seven players contributed at least 13 yards, but Nyheim Hines’ 54 were the most.

And to the point of this spread-it-around passing approach, T.Y. Hilton wasn’t included in either category. The four-time Pro Bowl wideout’s lackluster season continued with two catches for 9 yards in the first half before a groin injury ended his day.

Hilton’s attempt at re-establishing himself as The Guy more than likely is on pause. He’s doubtful for Sunday’s meeting with the Baltimore Ravens at Lucas Oil Stadium because of the groin injury. And here’s where we remind everyone the Colts are 1-9 when Hilton has missed a game with an injury.

Hilton’s situation is compounded by Ashton Dulin being ruled out with a knee injury and Marcus Johnson, who has emerged as Rivers’ deep threat, being questionable with a knee issue. Johnson “dinged’’ his knee in Wednesday’s practice, according to coach Frank Reich, but was a full participant Friday.

When Rivers stares down the Ravens’ disruptive defense Sunday – 24 sacks, 35 tackles for loss, 16 forced fumbles, a league-high nine fumble recoveries – he’ll do, again, without that singular receiver/tight end/running back option in the passing game.

Several viable targets, to be sure. Johnson is averaging 20.6 yards on 11 catches and went for 108 yards on five receptions against Cincinnati. Mo Alie-Cox had five catches for 111 yards against Minnesota. Hines’ had those two highlight catch-and-run-and-flip TDs at Detroit. Zach Pascal posted a pair of 100-yard games in ’19.

And let’s not forget Jack Doyle. Although he’s been uncharacteristically quiet thus far – nine catches, 108 yards, two TDs – it hasn’t been that long ago he piled up 80 receptions (in ’17, the first of his two Pro Bowl seasons).

So many places to go, except not to a bona fide No. 1 target.

Rivers admitted hitting 11 different players at Detroit was “probably a bit unusual,’’ but added he’s seen a “variety of skill players’’ since the first day of training camp. The wideouts. The tight ends. The backs.

“I think it makes us, in way, tougher to defend because you don’t really know where the ball’s going,’’ Rivers said. “Our coaching staff is so detailed and does such a great job of coaching route discipline and route techniques and why every route is important on every play.

“So every guy is available, has a chance to get the football on every play.’’

There are progressions as Rivers scans the field. Maybe the first read is Hilton or Johnson, or a screen to Hines, Jonathan Taylor or Jordan Wilkins.

“Sometimes they come up just how you call them and then other times they don’t and you end up getting to the third or fourth, fifth guy,’’ Rivers said. “But when they do their job and the guys up front protect, it allows for that ball to go anywhere.’’

And for anybody to be on the business end of it.

Consider no Colt has led the team in receiving yards or targets in consecutive games. Also, six different players have led the team in yards: Hilton (twice), Campbell, Pascal, Alie-Cox, Johnson and Hines.

Reich’s passing game in 2018, his first year with the Colts, leaned heavily on Hilton: 76 receptions, 1,270 yards, six TDs. T.Y. was The Guy even though tight end Eric Ebron added his breakout season (66 catches, 750 yards, 13 TDs).

Now, Reich is warming to the alternative approach.

“I prefer what we have right now,’’ he said. “As a coach, you just have so much confidence and belief in the guys you have. There is something about – that I thoroughly get fired up about – about spreading the ball around, about getting everybody involved, everybody contributes.

“It’s fun to see a guy take over a game (as a featured wideout), but it’s more fun for us to spread it around. We’ve got a lot of confidence in our receivers and our backs and our tight ends. We’ll keep using all of them.’’

Through seven games, the passing game can best be described as a collective success without that singular target.

Rivers is 6th in completion percentage (a career-best 69.7), 7th in yards per attempt (8.1) and 15th in passer rating (97.3). He’s had 27 completions of at least 20 yards, tied for 9th-most and only four behind Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan heading into week 9.

On the plus side, the Colts are one of seven teams that feature five players with at least 200 receiving yards. The passing game ranks 11th overall (262.6 yards per game) and 5th in yards per pass play (7.79).

Yet Hines’ 26 receptions are tied for 61st in the NFL and the second-fewest by a player leading his team. Julian Edelman paces the New England Patriots with 21. And Hilton’s  team-best 251 yards rank 84th in the league and is lowest total to lead a team.

Coordinator Nick Sirianni echoed Reich’s sentiments.

“When you’re in the position that we’re in and you spread the ball around, that’s a big advantage for us,’’ he said. “They don’t know who you want to throw to. A lot of teams it’s, ‘They are throwing to that guy every time.’ We just have an extreme amount of trust in each one of the guys that are out there because they are good players and they’ve shown us that.

“When you have multiple guys you can spread the ball around to, I think that makes you more difficult to defend.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

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