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Film Room: What is up with Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton?

New York Jets v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Colts star wide receiver has been a bit of a talking point early in the season, because he has seemingly struggled to start 2020. After getting some questions about why that might be, and wondering myself what was holding him back, I decided to take a look at the film and see for myself how he’s looked in 2020. Let’s dig in and see for ourselves how he’s played.

On this play Hilton runs a great 20-yard out route. His man has eyes in the backfield while he drops, and Hilton drives hard up the numbers on his inside shoulder until just before his break. He crosses over behind the corner just before he reaches his break, and cleanly cuts outside for an easy catch as he goes out. This is a savvy route by a master route runner, and the kind of play we’ve grown to expect from Hilton.

The mark of a good young corner is that they don’t get beat the same way over and over. On this play, Henderson is again in coverage of Hilton, but the play ends differently. In the first play, Henderson bails right away as he drops back to his zone. Here we see clear man coverage for him, and doesn’t give up the inside track to Hilton. When he hits his break this time, Hilton doesn’t have the separation he did on the previous rep, and Henderson is able to close the gap to break up the pass. This isn’t necessarily a bad rep for Hilton as much as a good one for Henderson, and an inadvisable throw for Rivers.

The more I watched this game the more impressed I was with C.J. Henderson, and the more frustrated I am with Rivers. Hilton is running another out, this time at about 12 yards. He thoroughly beats his man, and should be absolutely wide open, except that C.J. Henderson, who is meant to be run off by Michael Pittman Jr. sees him coming free. He stops pursuit of Pittman Jr. and closes on the ball to make the interception. Hilton has a solid rep here. Rivers, on the other hand, had Pittman Jr. down the sideline and should have pulled the trigger on that throw, not the awful choice he made instead.

Here is another example of a good route and win for Hilton that Rivers just makes the wrong throw on. There is no doubt that he and Parris Campbell were in sync in week one, but he forces a throw to Campbell and puts the ball high and outside, when he has Hilton underneath on a crossing route having beaten his man with a lot of space in front of him. I get taking the shot, but hitting Hilton on this play probably gets you a first down, and potentially more.

From what I’ve seen in this game so far, it seems that the struggles for Hilton were mainly about two things: a focus on short passing, and a tendency toward Rivers getting the ball to Parris Campbell. Neither of those is a huge issue in small measure. It keeps the offense unpredictable, and they don’t want to rely too much on Hilton. There are, however, the issues of his late game drops.

On 2nd and 5 with under a minute to play and trailing by a touchdown, Rivers hits Hilton on about a 15-yard comeback. Despite not really connecting a lot, the two had reasonably good chemistry on those timing routes, and this one arrives on time. Hilton has the ball, but he can’t keep control of it on his way to the ground, and the defender manages to knock it loose. This is a play Hilton usually makes, and it is frustrating to see him drop it on a critical down, but it is also a good defensive breakup.

With the game on the line, T.Y. Hilton is definitely the guy for the Colts that you want to go to, and that’s exactly what they did on 4th and 4 with 49 seconds left. Hilton runs a stop route just past the line to gain, and has C.J. Henderson beaten. Rivers gets the ball out a hair late, and puts it way too far inside, leaving a clear pathway for someone who has played as well as Henderson did all day to get a chance at a breakup. Hilton doesn’t extend out for the ball and lets it come to him, which gives Henderson just enough time to come back to the ball and make a play. It is another frustrating play, but I would again put this as much or more on the throw of Philip Rivers as on Hilton dropping it.

On this play Hilton gets leveraged inside and pushed off his route by the cornerback. The ball comes outside from Rivers and Hilton just doesn’t really have a chance to make a play. Thankfully, the cornerback never gets his head around or this might be a pick.

Here Hilton runs a very nice post route out of single coverage and not only sheds his man to get open in the middle of the field, but makes him miss for an additional 10 yards after the catch. When the Colts have looked at these plays deep they have often been there, but because of their tendency to go for the short, high-efficiency passes, they haven’t done so often.

This is a T.Y. Hilton special all the way up until he drops it. He runs a great route, has his man beat, and Rivers’ throw is on the money. All he has to do is close the deal with a catch. Frank Reich stated after the game that the sun had been in Hilton’s eyes, but regardless, there is no good excuse for it. Also, you play in a dome. Close the roof already. One touchdown lost because of having the roof open during an afternoon game is a touchdown too many.

Here we see Hilton make a great play on another out route, but this time the corner is not C.J. Henderson, and so he takes an awful angle, letting Hilton escape to slide up the sideline for about 10 extra yards.

T.Y. Hilton isn’t known as a physical guy, so for a receiver on the back stretch of his prime, it is great to see him go up and get one while being held all the way up the field by Eddie Jackson. This is a great play from T.Y. and you absolutely love seeing it.


What I think may be the biggest factor in Hilton’s season so far is what you might call the Rock Ya-Sin effect. Last season Rock Ya-Sin had one really bad game against Denver, and it tainted the perception of many people against him. Hilton had two drops in a critical drive that ended a comeback and resulted in a week one loss to a division rival. Add to that the fact that he dropped a bomb in the end zone a week later, and we virtually cemented him as a player in decline.

The tape shows something different. There isn’t anything on film I see that indicates he has dropped off at all. He still is a crisp route runner with very good play speed, and has drawn a number of big pass interference and defensive holding penalties so far this season. The nature of the Colts offense and Philip Rivers’ tendency to spread the ball around have definitely impacted his numbers on the season, as have the particular kind of games the Colts have played.

With a team that is so talented defensively and that has the players to lean on the run, they have tended toward a more conservative, short passing game. That limits Hilton’s involvement. In the first four games of 2018, Hilton was targeted 38 times. Through four games in 2019, he was targeted 29. In 2020, he’s been targeted just 22 times.

Additionally, they’ve been up big in two of their four games, and have been able to grind out the clock on the ground to get wins. Those things have certainly also had an effect.

Rapport with Rivers also seemed off over the first couple weeks, and that resulted in odd ball placement and missed opportunities. Those have been less over the following two weeks. There is plenty of reason to think we could see a major upswing in play for Hilton as the season progresses.