Shortly after Alec Pierce arrived in Indianapolis this spring, Frank Reich and his coaching staff had a discussion – would Pierce, the No. 53 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, be one of those guys who would be brought along slowly in Year 1?
The answer: "Nope," Reich recalled on Wednesday. "This is not going to be a slow development process.
"... We felt it, with what you saw on tape from college, when you talk to him, super competitive, tough, smart and it was evident that he had all the skillset. He had the speed, he's a good route runner. We decided very early in the process that this was not going to be a slow development process. We're going to accelerate this and just throw him in."
Despite an early hiccup – the dropped touchdown he had in Week 1 against the Houston Texans – two plays, both late in games, showed why the Colts' throw-him-into-the-fire approach with Pierce is working.
First: With 75 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Colts trailing the Kansas City Chiefs by four points, Matt Ryan threw a hitch route to Pierce for a 14-yard gain. When Ryan released his throw, Pierce's back was to the play, highlighting the quarterback's trust in his wide receiver to get open within the timing of the play. Pierce got to the proper depth, turned around and snagged Ryan's pass; two plays later, Ryan found tight end Jelani Woods for a game-winning touchdown.
When Ryan was asked on Wednesday if there was a specific moment when he started to feel strong trust in Pierce, this was the play to which he pointed.
"He made a great catch for us on the sideline in the fourth quarter to kind of put us in position to allow Jelani to make a play," Ryan said.
The second one: With just seconds left and the Colts trailing the Jacksonville Jaguars by a point, Ryan threw a go-up-and-get-it ball to Pierce down the near sideline, which the rookie came down with for a game-winning 32-yard touchdown.
Pierce's release at the snap was clean, allowing him to get a step on cornerback Shaquill Griffin. But there was another subtle thing Pierce did exceedingly well on the play: He didn't drift toward the sideline.
"There are two things on go routes that can kind of throw you off," Ryan said. "No. 1 is not being patient with the release. No. 2 is not saving space. A lot of times DBs are trying to use that sideline to kind of widen you, slip and limit the amount of space that you have to kind of make that play."
This is something Colts cornerback Stephon Gilmore is especially adept at doing: Using the sideline as a defender on vertical one-on-one routes. By limiting the space available for a wide receiver to win on a go ball, a cornerback can turn a 50/50 throw into a lower-percentage pass. Pierce didn't allow himself or Griffin to get closer to the sideline – if you look closely at the play, you can draw a straight line from where Pierce lined up to where Pierce caught the pass.
"Honestly, that's something he's worked hard on from the beginning of his time here," Ryan said. "He was very productive doing that stuff in college, but it's just different the way the hashes are, how good the DBs are at kind of squeezing off that space. I think that's something that he's really improved at."
Pierce has nine catches on 14 targets for 140 yards with six first downs and one touchdown in the fourth quarter or later entering Week 7 of his rookie season. Those 140 yards are 12th among wide receivers in the fourth quarter or in overtime.
The moment has never been too big for Pierce, which is something Ryan has appreciated about him – including after the drop he had in Houston.
"The best part about him is the way he responds to that," Ryan said. "I know it's only one play, but that can be difficult for people to deal with. Just his demeanor never really changed. He's the exact same way whether it's after that catch or after a good catch. He has that demeanor of just continuing to compete no matter what."
And Pierce's ability to win on routes outside the numbers is a "special trait," Reich said. Seventeen of his 29 targets and 11 of his 18 receptions have come outside the numbers, per Pro Football Focus. And Pierce's receiving stats outside the numbers stack up well against the rest of the NFL (stats via PFF, minimum 15 targets):
- 202 receiving yards: 15th
- 5 contested catches: T-3rd
- 18.4 yards/reception: 5th
- 3.56 yards/route run: 6th
- 66.7 contested target completion percentage: 7th
- 106.7 passer rating when targeted: 8th
But the Colts see Pierce becoming more than just an outside-the-numbers ball-winner. He was adept at that skill in college at Cincinnati, but as part of his accelerated development, the Colts envision Pierce as someone who can win between the numbers, too.
And as Pierce continues to hone that part of his game – with the help of wide receiver coach Reggie Wayne, who Reich said is "one of the keys" to his rapid ascent – he'll continue to be looked to by Ryan and Reich as an integral part of the Colts' offense in 2022.
"You need guys who can make an impact outside the numbers," Reich said. "If you're going to be a guy who can make an impact out there or sometimes a tall, skinny, fast guy can do that, but they don't necessarily do much damage over the middle. You can kind of narrow the field on that guy.
"What Alec is showing, is that he can do all of it. You know we like to do that in our offense. We like to move guys around very intentionally to switch it up for all those reasons."