If you had the opportunity to take in even just one training camp practice for the Indianapolis Colts this year, it would've been difficult to miss the connection building between quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
While the veteran Ryan, acquired by the Colts via trade this offseason, was trying to establish a rhythm with all of his new offensive weapons, it was clear that No. 11 was, appropriately, going to be the major focus as the team's top target.
That theme certainly carried over into Sunday's 2022 season opener for the Colts, on the road against the Houston Texans. With Ryan making his first-career start for Indianapolis after spending his first 14 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, he went to Pittman Jr. early and often — and then went right back to him again late on a critical drive to notch a game-tying score.
The Colts-Texans matchup would end up a 20-20 tie, but that Ryan-Pittman Jr. connection has already proven to be one to watch the rest of the season. Pittman Jr. was targeted a game-high 13 times, logging nine receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown in all.
"I think we can have a really great connection, and we're going to need to," Ryan said of throwing to Pittman Jr. "He's a talented player, a great competitor, and I'm fired up to play with him."
While the Colts (0-0-1) had a run-heavy approach to begin the game on offense, Ryan was still determined to find opportunities to get in a rhythm with Pittman Jr., completing two first-quarter passes to the third-year USC product for 25 yards, including a 17-yard connection. Pittman Jr. had another four receptions for 55 yards in the second quarter, though the Colts would go into halftime trailing 10-3 after failing to cash in at the end of two drives deep in Houston territory.
Pittman Jr. wasn't targeted in what was a dull third quarter for the Colts overall, who were outscored 10-0 in the period and put themselves in a 20-3 hole heading into the fourth quarter. But the Indy defense, as well as the combination of Ryan, Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor on offense, would rise to the occasion over the next 15 minutes to eventually tie the ballgame.
Taylor had 13 fourth-quarter carries for 73 yards and a touchdown, while Pittman had three receptions for 41 yards in the final period of regulation, including the eventual game-tying score. On 1st and 10 from the Texans' 15, with the Houston defense selling out to try to stop the run, Ryan instead found Pittman Jr. out on the perimeter to the right side of the field; the physical receiver put in a tremendous effort to go through Texans safety Jonathan Owens and dive into the end zone for the touchdown. The ensuing extra point from Rodrigo Blankenship tied the game at 20 with two minutes left in regulation, capping a 17-0 run for the Colts.
The overtime period resulted in two possessions each for the Colts and Texans, both of which ending without points. Blankenship missed a potential game-winning field goal from 42 yards out on Indy's first possession, and a stingy Colts defense just wouldn't let the Texans get into field goal range on their end.
"We pretty much just gathered up and said, 'Hey guys, we're going to make a run back,'" Pittman Jr. said when asked how the Colts were able to mount their comeback effort. "And we made the run — we did our two-minute drill, and came back and set it up. And unfortunately, it just didn't happen for us."
A tie is certainly a disappointing end result for a Colts team hoping to earn its first season-opening win since 2013. But after building clear offensive momentum late in Sunday's season opener — especially with the play of Ryan, Taylor, and Pittman Jr. — Indy does have a positive foundation heading into next week's matchup, another divisional battle on the road against the Jacksonville Jaguars (0-1).
"I think they're incredible competitors. There's no flinch—no matter what the situation is, those guys are going to keep competing, keep going," Ryan said of Pittman Jr. and Taylor. "They've got incredibly strong belief in themselves and the guys around them, and that's huge for us as team. You've got to have leaders like that, that other players see their confidence and their belief, and it's infectious. And so I thought those guys did a really nice job for us today."