With 1:15 remaining in the fourth quarter of Sunday's Week 3 matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs, the Colts, trailing 17-13, were putting together a solid offensive drive, needing to get into the end zone if they wanted to earn a last-minute victory — their first of the season — over one of the NFL's top teams.
On 2nd and 7 from the Kansas City 26-yard line, Colts quarterback Matt Ryan saw a matchup he liked off to the perimeter to his right. If he could get the right protection, he wasn't going to hesitate to throw rookie Alec Pierce's way.
Lined up in the shotgun with running back Jonathan Taylor to his right, Ryan took the snap and scanned the field, focusing to his left but never forgetting about Pierce to his right, locked in one-on-one coverage against cornerback Jaylen Watson. Ryan quickly shifted that way and delivered the pass before Pierce had even finished getting separation via the comeback route.
Pierce jumped to haul in the well-timed pass for 14 crucial yards to the Kansas City 12-yard line.
Ryan was so confident in that Pierce matchup by that point that he audibled out of the original call to try to get the ball to the rookie wide receiver on the very next play — one that fell incomplete but nearly resulted in a game-winning touchdown.
That touchdown ended up coming to fruition for the Colts' offense on the next play — another well-placed pass from Ryan, this time to big tight end Jelani Woods — and Indy earned a much needed victory, 20-17, over Kansas City.
But that sequence of plays for Pierce, and his three total receptions on the day — the first three of his NFL career — were a major source of confidence for a rookie wide receiver working hard to carve out his role in the Colts' offense.
"Yeah, it felt good for sure," Pierce said of his three-catch, 61-yard performance. "That's kind of what I was focused on, was just going out there and just trying not to be in my head and thinking as much, and just go out there and play ball. It's the same thing I've been doing all my life."
Pierce was taken by the Colts in the second round of this year's NFL Draft to help take the heat off of No. 1 wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. Pierce's college tape showed an athletic freak who could make plays all over the field, but who was especially effective on the outside and in go-up-and-get-it types of throws.
Like most rookies, and especially those at wide receiver, however, the adjustment to the NFL has proven to take some time. In his pro debut Week 1 against the Houston Texans, for example, Pierce was unable to haul in a wide-open touchdown pass — going without a catch on two targets — and then he suffered a concussion that resulted in him missing last week's road loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Pierce was determined — "super motivated," he said — to show meaningful progress during his return against the Chiefs.
"After Week 1, I definitely kind of took a step back and wanted to go out there and just really prove to everyone what I wanted to do," he said. "So I'd say there was a little bit extra motivation."
Pierce got his first NFL reception out of the way in the second quarter — a solid 17-yard pass-and-catch from Ryan to move the chains and get into Kansas City territory. The Colts would end up getting a Chase McLaughlin field goal on that drive.
Pierce's second reception of the day, meanwhile, was exactly what the Colts envisioned when they selected him in the draft. Backed all the way up to their own 1-yard line with 4:46 remaining in the first half, Ryan threw a jumpball down the right sideline to Pierce, deciding to let him make a play in the air.
Pierce, knowing his coaches have been on him about focusing on leaving enough room in-bounds for his quarterback to get him the ball, was able to both focus on that technique, while also simply use his elite athleticism to make a big play — a 30-yard reception.
"The go ball — that's what he's here for, to make more of those," Colts head coach Frank Reich said.
Pierce said he was able to get a good enough release off the line to know he'd have enough room to make a play.
"I think I had a decent release there — I don't think I killed him or anything — but definitely a (good) release," he recalled of that play. "And they've been on me about holding the line; kind of had some bad habits from college, so I've been trying to get out of that. I've got to save space for the quarterback so he can throw the ball and you're still in-bounds. So I've been really focused on that."
"t's awesome, for sure," Pierce continued. "I think it's something I really excel at at receiver, so it's great to be able to do things that you're good at."
But perhaps even more importantly is the fact Pierce and Woods, both rookies, not only earned the trust from their veteran quarterback to get passes thrown their way during crucial points of the game, but to actually come down with those throws.
"For young players to step up when you need it, at the end of games, and to make the plays that Alec made on converting a first down for us to get into that low-red area. We took another shot to Alec, too, where they had a pressure coming off the right side, and almost got it. But then to go back, and Jelani come up with the game-winning touchdown, that's huge," Ryan said. " have a lot of belief in those guys. I really think they're going to be good players in this league. They've shown it on the practice field; maybe haven't seen it as much in the games to start this year, but I really think there's gonna be a lot of improvement from them. But they stepped up. And the one thing you just don't know until you're in those situations is if guys have no flinch and they just keep battling, and both those guys showed that today."
The Colts take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the first home game of the season at Lucas Oil Stadium.