With each passing week, Alec Pierce shows more and more why the Indianapolis Colts were elated to pick him up in the second round of this year's NFL Draft.
Case in point: Thursday night's Week 5 matchup on the road against the Denver Broncos. Playing against one of the better defenses in the league to this point of the season, the Colts' offense had to scratch and claw for every single yard in what turned out to be about a 70-minute overtime contest.
But with top receiver Michael Pittman Jr. often blanketed in coverage, it was the rookie Pierce that became veteran quarterback Matt Ryan's security blanket throughout Thursday's game — especially late, and especially in crucial situations.
The final result was the most productive night of Pierce's young career to date: eight receptions for 81 yards — and, most importantly, a 12-9 overtime victory to move the Colts to 2-2-1 on the season.
"It confirms what I thought," Ryan said after the game when asked what he thought of Pierce's performance. "I thought he was going to be a tough, resilient player. I thought he was going to be a (gutsy) player, I knew he had great hands watching him. You just hoped he was a gamer — and he is, there is no doubt about it."
There has been a clear increase in the rapport between Ryan and Pierce the last few weeks.
Pierce, he'll admit, had a rough start to his rookie season, dropping a wide-open touchdown catch Week 1 against the Houston Texans and later suffering a concussion that would force him to miss the following week's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But since that time he has rebounded quite well, showing off a versatile skillset both as a go-up-and-get-it type of receiver on deep pass attempts along the perimeter, as well as a reliable target in traffic in the middle of the field.
Pierce had several receptions of the latter type on Thursday night. With the Broncos' defensive front flying to the quarterback play after play, Ryan often had to get rid of the football either before he wanted to — or, in a couple cases, as he was being hit, forcing some floating pass attempts that were essentially 50-50 balls for either side.
On at least a couple occasions, however, it was Pierce whose fight and skills won out on those more competitive opportunities, once even taking a sure interception away from a Broncos defender.
"He had a massive play picking them up off the ground, guys hanging on his back, ball got tipped floating through the air," Reich said of Pierce. "We saw this, you felt this with this guy, it's never felt too big for him. It's going to be good for us."
"I just tried to see the ball, it was kind of in the air and I was worried he was going to pick it off. So, I kind of just tried to be physical with him and body him out the way, like box him out," Pierce said of that play. "I think I was able to kind of just catch it on my body and my legs or whatever but trying to trap it on my body because I tried to box him out, keep him away from the ball because I didn't want him to get an interception."
The key for Pierce now is to keep the momentum going. Rookie wide receivers often have hills and valleys to their first NFL seasons before really taking off in Year 2 or 3, but Pierce has shown the last three weeks that he can build quality performances over several games — as evidenced by his 15 receptions for 222 yards (14.8 avg.) since Week 3.
Heading into the rest of Week 5 action, Pierce ranks fifth among all NFL rookies in receptions, fourth in receiving yards, and third among qualifying rookie receivers in average yards per catch.
"He's so leveled when he is out there — never too high, too low. He just keeps competing," Ryan said. "I'm proud of him."