INDIANAPOLIS — You almost take it for granted when your top offensive weapon is available each and every week, year after year after year.
So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the Indianapolis Colts’ offense simply just wasn’t as effective the last two weeks without that weapon, T.Y. Hilton, in its lineup.
Hilton battled through a chest injury suffered Week 4 against the Houston Texans to catch four passes for 115 yards, but after going down with a hamstring injury later in that contest, Hilton would have to sit out the next two games against the New England Patriots and the New York Jets, snapping a streak of consecutive starts at 42 games, which was the third longest among active NFL wide receivers.
But feeling better each and every day, Hilton returned to the practice field — surprisingly as a full participant — last Wednesday, as the Colts began preparations for the Buffalo Bills. By Sunday, he was back in the starting lineup and wreaking havoc once again, as his two touchdown receptions helped snap Indy’s four-game losing streak in their 37-5 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Colts head coach Frank Reich told reporters after the game that having Hilton back “does a lot on so many levels.”
“First of all, just on an emotional level, knowing that he’s out there. He’s one of our leaders. He’s been all-in in every way,” Reich said.
But from a purely football sense?
“He’s our playmaker,” Reich continued. “He came up big today with the two touchdowns, so a big lift for our whole offense.”
Hilton on Sunday was understandably on a bit of a snap count — his 35 total snaps accounted for just 53 percent of the offense’s total plays; when fully healthy, Hilton is usually on the field at least 90 percent of the time — but he was still able to make a large impact against a Bills defense that came into the game ranked fifth against the pass in the NFL.
Hilton caught all four of the passes thrown his way on the day for 25 yards, but his two touchdowns continued to show how he can be utilized not just as a deep-threat receiver, but as someone who can make plays in the red zone, too.
Perhaps his most important play of the day came late in the second quarter. The Colts (2-5) had jumped out to a 14-0 lead — something they weren’t able to do with Hilton out of the lineup the previous two weeks — but were facing a 3rd and 4 from the Bills’ 5-yard line.
A field goal in this situation wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but Indy wanted another touchdown to really put the opposition into a hole going into halftime.
Lined up in the shotgun formation on the play, Luck took the snap and immediately looked to his left, where three receivers were headed towards the end zone. But he was quickly harassed by Bills defensive end Trent Murphy, so Luck sprinted out of the pocket to his right.
The scripted part of the play is over. Now the Colts needed someone to step up and simply make a play.
Being chased to near the right sideline by three Buffalo defenders, Luck saw Hilton — who had initially sprung open across the middle in the end zone — continue to battle for position, find another pocket in the coverage and subtly call for the ball.
Luck delivered a strike on the run to his top target, and Hilton went to the ground with the ball for his first score of the day.
Those scramble drill-type scenarios oftentimes come down to football intelligence and feel, and Luck said Hilton has plenty of both.
“(On) a scramble drill, he knows how to find the right space in the end zone, protect the football and come down with the ball afterwards,” Luck said of Hilton after the game. “That’s a tough catch.
“(It) might not be a spectacular, 60-yard, classic T.Y. Hilton touchdown but it is so impressive to watch him create space with leverage working against him,” Luck continued. “He does the little things right.”
Hilton’s second touchdown of the day actually came on a designed play, but the end result looked similar to his first score. Leading 24-5 early in the fourth quarter and facing 3rd and Goal from the 1-yard line, Luck took the snap and rolled out to his right and quickly fired a pass to Hilton, who was simply able to beat cornerback Taron Johnson in one-on-one coverage and come down with a tough catch for the score.
The play was Hilton’s fourth receiving touchdown of the season; all four have come in the red zone in Reich’s new offensive scheme.
“Just knowing when he catches that little one-yard touchdown, that’s not a gimme thing,” Reich said of the trust he’s noticed between Luck and Hilton. “You’ve got to have so much trust in your receiver running that thing because that could be 99 yards the other way. That’s the kind of route that you just got to believe and T.Y. brings that.”
Hilton, of course, was feeling good after the game, but knows that satisfaction can’t last long at all. The Colts immediately turn their focus to next Sunday’s road matchup against the Oakland Raiders (1-5) hoping to get a win to get back into the AFC South Division race.
“We needed one game and we got the game,” Hilton said. “So now we just continue to move on. We’ve got Oakland next week, but we’ll celebrate today and just move on tomorrow.”