INDIANAPOLIS – It required a quick double-take when Matt Ryan flicked a pass to his left against the Philadelphia Eagles that found the receptive hands of No. 81.
Who was that guy?
“It felt like forever since I had a catch,’’ he said with a broad smile.
It hadn’t been that long, but it’s easy to appreciate Alie-Cox’s reaction.
Over the first four games of the season, the veteran tight end made his usual impact on offense: 10 catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns on 14 targets. In the week 4 loss to Tennessee, Alie-Cox led the Colts with six receptions – on six targets – 85 yards and two TDs.
That didn’t last.
Heading into last Sunday’s meeting with the Eagles, he had three catches for 20 yards on four targets in six games. The only thing that appeared on his stat line from the game: one target, one catch for 14 yards in the second quarter.
It wasn’t as if Alie-Cox spent the afternoon idling on the sideline. For the second game in a row, he was on the field for 40 snaps, roughly 61% of the offensive plays.
But due to circumstances out of his control, his role has changed dramatically as the season has unfolded and, in some instances, unraveled.
“Definitely different,’’ Alie-Cox said. “We haven’t gotten the results that we wanted. Me personally, I haven’t hit some of my goals.
“I’ve just gotta keep going along and do what the coaches tell me to do.’’
In previous seasons, the Colts have tapped into his full skillset. They’ve gotten solid production in the pass game – 55 receptions, 710 yards, six TDs in 2020-21 – while also using his 6-5, 267-pound frame in run blocking and pass protection.
Alie-Cox’s still-evolving game, coupled with the retirement of Jack Doyle, prompted general manager Chris Ballard to sign the former Virginia Commonwealth basketball standout to a three-year, $18 million contract that included $8.2 million in guarantees.
But, as Alie-Cox noted, this season has been different than anyone anticipated.
The offensive line has underperformed all season, especially in pass protection. It has allowed 40 sacks, tied for most in the NFL. Matt Ryan has been sacked 29 times, tied for fifth most despite missing two games. He went down four times in the 17-16 loss to the Eagles.
To buttress pass protection, the Colts have had to incorporate their tight ends. Over the last seven games, Alie-Cox has been on the field for 49.3% of the plays, and been targeted just five times. Rookie Nikola Kalinic was elevated to the active roster from the practice squad for the last two games while rookie Jelani Woods dealt with a shoulder injury, and has yet to be targeted despite being on the field for 24 snaps.
The exception has been Kylen Granson, who’s the hybrid in the tight ends room. He’s fourth on the team with 25 receptions and 249 yards.
“Definitely been kept in to block more,’’ Alie-Cox said. “It’s definitely challenging. As a mid-skill player on offense, you want to be out there making plays, but at the end of the day you just want to do what’s best for the team. Hopefully what’s best for the team will lead to winning.
“As a player, you always want more. As a competitor, you always want to do more to help the team. But you can’t let your personal needs get in the way of the team needs. Being a veteran player, I’ve come to understand that.’’
That’s a sign of maturity.
In week 2 of 2020, Alie-Cox had the best game of his career: five catches, 111 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. He managed only 50 receiving yards once the remainder of the season, and had 23 or fewer 10 times.
“Back then I was more so frustrated,’’ he said. “Now, being here my sixth year, you just understand it just comes with the season.
“You have your ups an downs.’’
Ryan’s knowledge of Alie-Cox is limited, but he’s been impressed with how he’s adapted to a different role on offense.
“I think he’s handled it well,’’ he said. “Obviously, at different times throughout the year he’s had production for us in the pass game and done a really good job. When you’re trying to shore things up front, you tend to chip with tight ends or keep tight ends in to try and help with tackles to create just one more guy for fronts to have to go around.
“It obviously limits what he can do in the pass game. I think from an attitude, from an effort standpoint, I think he’s been great.’’
Often, the ability of a tight end to serve as an extension to the o-line can be overlooked. But remember Jonathan Taylor’s 66-yard touchdown at Las Vegas? Alie-Cox helped Taylor get to the second level with a cut-block on Raiders’ end Maxx Crosby. It was reminiscent of Doyle springing Taylor on some of his jarring runs while piling up a franchise-record 1,811 yards last season.
“The slice block,’’ Alie-Cox said with a smile. “Earlier in the game I didn’t slice him and he got in on the tackle. Crosby is a big jump-around guy. They just told me ‘Next time you go over there, regardless if he’s standing up or not, just take his legs out and see what happens.’
“I went out there and did that and Braden (Smith) got a good push and the crease was right there.’’
Taylor did the rest with his longest run of the season.
Interim head coach Jeff Saturday described Alie-Cox as a “full-team player.’’
“He understands this is a need for our football team right now,’’ he said of Alie-Cox’s blocking. “He’ll step in and do it. ‘’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.