INDIANAPOLIS – We’re talking T.Y. Hilton and personal sacrifices and touches and how many he’s getting and is that enough?
He’s at a position that’s entirely dependent on touches. Get the football in his hands and let the man do something with it.
There are occasions when he’s called on to block on bubble screens for Zach Pascal or Michael Pittman Jr., or downfield to help spring Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines or Jordan Wilkins for a gashing run.
But T.Y. Hilton, first and foremost, is a pass catcher, and a pretty darned good one. Notice the four Pro Bowl selections on his resume. Notice the five 1,000-yard seasons. Only Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne – one Hall of Famer, the other under consideration to join him in Canton, Ohio – have more 1,000-yard games in franchise history.
He’s 31, in his ninth season and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, and had been dealing with a very un-T.Y.-like season until the past two games.
Yet T.Y. Hilton hasn’t lost any confidence in T.Y. Hilton.
How do you feel? Do you believe you’ve still got a lot left?
“I mean, you (saw) it last week,’’ Hilton said on a Thursday Zoom conference call. “I’m still effective. I’m still dominant. I can dominate any team, any game no matter where we’re at.
“If I get my chance, if I get my targets, I’m going to go out there and do my best, and that’s make plays. I feel great. I’m excited.’’
Before we get back to the topic of the day – that would be touches and how many are enough – Hilton touched on whether his time with the Colts is winding down. Again, he’s in the final year of the five-year, $65 million extension he signed in August 2015.
He sought an extension during the offseason, but “that died once week 1 came,’’ Hilton said. “If I’m a free agent, I’m a free agent. I look forward to it. I’m excited.
“I feel good. Body-wise, I feel great. I’m still playing at a high level.’’
In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, Hilton has done a lot lately. Maybe because he’s getting more touches?
His last two games: 12 receptions for 191 yards and two touchdowns on 16 targets. That includes eight catches for 110 yards and one TD on 11 targets at Houston.
His first nine games: 29 catches, 327 yards, zero TDs on 50 targets.
It’s worth noting his breakout game at Houston – his home away from home – featured season highs in targets, catches and yards. The Colts’ first drive of the game began with Philip Rivers finding Hilton for an 18-yard completion and ended with Hilton’s 21-yard TD on a crossing pattern. In the first half, he had seven catches for 100 yards and the TD on nine targets.
“I kinda thought it was about to be a 200-yard day the way that first half was,’’ Rivers said.
“I felt it could be special,’’ he said.
Instead, the offense went away from him after the break: just two targets, one catch, 10 yards. Maybe it’s a coincidence the offense failed to score in the second half.
But in the first half, and on the heels of a four-catch, 81-yard outing the prior week against the Tennessee Titans, Hilton re-established himself as the playmaker the Colts selected in the third round of the 2012 draft.
“I’m not going to lie, it did feel good and it feels like it’s the way it should be,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “It’s not going to be that way every game, but he is our leader at that position. He is one of the emotional leaders of this team.
“He has a presence about him and a confidence about him that the team feeds off of. It was great to get him going on Sunday.’’
When the franchise transitioned from Jacoby Brissett to Rivers in the offseason, Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni insisted Hilton would remain the catalyst in the passing game.
But that hasn’t been the case. Rather than a no-doubt focal point, Hilton has been one of many components.
Apparently, that was the plan all along. Hilton mentioned a meeting Reich had with the skill players – wideouts, running backs, tight ends – during the offseason. The theme: sacrificing self for team.
“I didn’t talk (to the coaches),’’ Hilton said. “It’s just something that Frank went over as a group, as a unit. What are we willing to do in order for this team to win? If it meant for me to sacrifice my touches, then I’ll sacrifice any day of the week for us to win. I don’t care what I have to do.
“If I don’t have to touch the ball, if I’ve got to touch the ball in order to get us going . . . I’m going to do it for the team.’’
Rivers has spread his 290 completions among 15 different receivers. Eleven players have at least 10 catches and seven at least 24. Hilton has been targeted the most (66) despite missing the Baltimore game with a groin injury, followed by Hines (58), Pascal (53), Pittman (45), Trey Burton (41), Mo Alie-Cox (35) and Taylor (30).
The math is clear evidence Hilton’s opportunities aren’t what they once were. He’s averaged 6.6 touches this season. From 2013-18, he averaged 8.6 touches. He earned his Pro Bowls and cracked the 1,000-yard mark five times during that six-year stretch.
The Colts take an 8-4 record and No. 7 seed to Las Vegas for Sunday’s important AFC showdown with the Raiders (7-5, No. 8 seed), and it will be interesting to see if Rivers continues to make a concerted effort to target Hilton.
During his prolific career, Rivers generally has leaned on a go-to guy: from Keenan Allen to Antonio Gates. He seldom shied away from either.
Against the Texans, it felt that way with Hilton.
“Last week it got going in that second quarter to where a little bit of me was like, ‘I want to throw the ball to 13 every single snap if I can,’’’ Rivers said. “He was going. I was like, ‘He may have 200 (yards) today.’ It was one of those deals . . . this guy is wearing this guy out over there, feed him the ball.’’
There were times with the Chargers that Rivers kept funneling the football to Gates until defenses forced him to look elsewhere.
“We used to have the ‘Gates Rule,’’’ Rivers said with a smile. “It was like, ‘Hey, we’re throwing the ball to Gates until we can’t.’
“On certain plays, that was the read-progression during the week. It was like, ‘OK, what means we can’t?’ Well, it took quite a bit in some instances.’’
It’s a weekly balancing act for Rivers within the offensive scheme: spread the ball around but maximize Hilton’s expertise.
“You don’t ever want to lose that,’’ Rivers said of Hilton, “but I do think playing within our system and as multiple as we are and really as deep as we are, it has probably made us a little tougher to defend play-in and play-out.’’
So, Hilton will remain as patient as his competitive nature allows for those touches.
“Sacrifice myself for the team,’’ he said. “We all sacrifice something, and I sacrificed my 10, 11 touches that I normally get a game to how many of them I can get.
“We’re all sacrificing something as a group. We are all sacrificing some touches. That is one thing that we did as a receiver group, that it is all about the team.’’
Rivers (turf toe) was a full participant Thursday after being held out of Wednesday’s practice.
The main surprise was the limited participation of Anthony Castonzo. The team’s starting left tackle missed Sunday’s win at Houston after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his right knee against Tennessee Nov. 29. It’s important how Castonzo’s knee responds to the workload.
Linebacker Bobby Okereke (ankle) and safety Khari Willis (back/quad) also were limited Thursday. Okereke has missed two games and Willis one.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.