The Indianapolis Colts went into the 2020 NFL Draft with a clear and obvious need at wide receiver. They decided to fill that need by taking USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. with the 34th pick in the Draft. While he had a bit of slow start due to finding his role in the offense and a crazy calf injury that sidelined him for a few weeks, he has found his footing the past two games as he has tallied 178 yards on 12 touches.
The young wide receiver is proving to be a bright spot in an offense that really needed a new face to step up and make some plays. In today’s film room, we will look at the ways he benefits this offense and how he has surprised me so far in the NFL.
The biggest surprise in how the Colts have used Pittman Jr. recently is how they are scheming the ball. You wouldn’t expect a 6’4” receiver to be utilized in the quick screen/underneath game but the Colts have been determined to use him this way. It has worked for the most part as he is silky smooth for his size and shows great speed along with it.
The Colts have used Pittman Jr. in the slot quite a bit recently. He only had a combined 10 snaps lined up in the slot in his first three games but since coming back from injury he has lined up there 61 times, which is 61% of his overall snaps since returning. Using him from the slot opens up opportunities for more schemed touches. Philip Rivers reads the off-man look that he is getting in the slot and quickly audibles into a bubble screen for Pittman Jr. The result is a 3rd down conversion and a solid gain.
The Colts have used Michael Pittman Jr in a way I didn't expect the last two weeks. It has been a lot of quick passes to get the big rookie in space with the ball. It has worked really well for this offense pic.twitter.com/IylOshBETQ— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
Other ways the Colts have schemed touches for Pittman Jr. is attacking the underneath game. He is a really smooth route runner (more on that later in this piece) and that allows him to beat any off-man coverage underneath with ease. Against the Titans on Thursday, Rivers and the Colts were perfectly fine with getting a free 5-7 yards by attacking these underneath windows with Pittman Jr. While they aren’t flashy plays, they show that the team trusts his ability to get open quickly and catch the ball in these situations.
The Colts and Philip Rivers were perfectly content with taking free yards against the Titans' off coverage. Pittman Jr was able to take advantage for a lot of underneath yardage pic.twitter.com/ELUt8D0mtH— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
The last way they have got him involved in the offense is by literally tossing him the ball. This reverse sweep against the Titans was beautifully drawn up as the defense didn’t expect the toss to go to Pittman Jr. whatsoever. He impressed me quite a bit with how quickly he got up the field and how fast he turned the corner here. It is crazy seeing a player of his size looking this good in the open field.
Michael Pittman Jr is a silky smooth 6'4" receiver coming off his first 100 yard game where he was moving in the open field...— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
Feed him the ball going forward Colts pic.twitter.com/oJL1IJ9Yj7
In-Breaking Routes vs Off Coverage
Now let’s get to some of the things that Pittman Jr. was great at in college that are translating to the NFL. One advantage of having a big receiver who moves well is using them against off coverage over the middle. We have seen it with how the Titans use A.J. Brown, for instance. Pittman Jr. is built in a similar way where his athleticism makes him a threat to push vertical and his size makes it hard for defenders to separate ball from man in contested situations. The result is plays like this one where Pittman Jr. can get that quick separation and get an easy first down.
Pittman Jr has been killing defenses on in breaking routes against off man coverage this year. Such a smooth athlete for a player his size and he makes all the routine catches pic.twitter.com/xqsiIIUuA8— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
The Titans got the worst of this yet again, as Pittman Jr. torched them for 70 yards on in-breaking crossers on Thursday. The first catch was a great route by him as he sells his vertical post against the off man but then flattens it out for the wide open catch. The second catch is a product of a great play design and coverage bust on defense. Again though, look how quickly he turns the corner and gets up field for a 6’4” wide receiver. Colts really could have something here if he learns how to break some tackles in the open field.
Pittman Jr had 2 catches for 70 yards on Thursday. The speed from the rookie is impressive as hell. He looks really smooth and comfortable in the open field. More of this please Colts pic.twitter.com/Z7zss4vyVR— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
Helping the QB... and looking smooth in the process
It is no secret that bigger receivers are a quarterback’s best friend on offense. That definitely applies to Rivers as he has had a great connection with many big receivers like Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, and Mike Williams throughout his career. What Pittman Jr. offers, though, is a big receiver who is also a great route runner and who understands how to attack the ball in the air. This is man coverage against Marcus Peters at the top of the screen. Pittman Jr. runs a nice route to create separation on the hook but he also comes back to the ball out of his break. This allows for him to quickly turn back up field for the first down.
This is a great route against Marcus Peters by Pittman Jr. Attacks the off man coverage and breaks his hips down well at the top of the route. He then comes back to the pass and is able to turn up field for extra yards pic.twitter.com/oN76Q9Yv2D— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
Similar play in this next clip. The route is silly good as Pittman Jr.’s route running ability is outstanding. The biggest thing to note, though, is how he doesn’t stop out of his route and attacks the ball while coming back to the quarterback. So many young receivers have the tendency to sit on their routes and that takes away their availability for their QB. Pittman Jr is excellent in this area already, and it is a little nuance like this that will lead to more trust with his quarterback and more targets overall.
Pittman Jr is easily the best route runner on the Colts. pic.twitter.com/JvPucV0oCv— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
Almost every clip I have shown in this piece has been Pittman Jr. beating off coverage. When it comes to press, it has been a similar story. For a player that is as smooth as he is along with his size, beating press should be a fairly easy task. Here he beats the press corner on the quick slant as he uses his extended arm to create quick separation.
Pittman Jr kills corners on third down when facing press. Just too easy of a read for Rivers pic.twitter.com/R14nqtO2zi— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
The very next week, Pittman Jr. uses his slant to set up this whip route. He quickly breaks inside against the press man before dropping low and shifting back outside with incredible footwork. I know I have said it at least six times in this piece already but it truly is incredible how smooth he is at his size. I really think that if he starts making defenders miss in the open field and creating yards after the catch, he can be special.
Press man coverage on 3rd down back in week 3 against the Jets. Look at how smooth Pittman Jr is on this whip route. Whewwww pic.twitter.com/cYYnQsv6yw— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
I speculated in the offseason that we could see a slow start to the season for Michael Pittman Jr. but see him explode down the stretch with more touches and targets overall. The Colts like to ease their rookie receivers into action and it takes time for a rookie to build chemistry with a quarterback. Now that the season is entering the last stretch, we could see the breakout for Pittman Jr.
Traits-wise, he has everything you want out of a receiver. He has the size and he moves exceptionally well in his routes and with the ball in his hands. He is a great blocker too which makes him an asset on every down for this team.
The biggest things that we have to see going forward for the breakout to really happen are more contested catch/big plays and making defenders miss in space. The first one is more opportunity based as he hasn’t had many chances to make those acrobatic contested catches down the field that he made some often in college. The second one is certainly an area he can improve in though.
Overall, the Colts may have a stud in the making with Pittman Jr. He knows how to separate, is reliable (has caught all 21 catchable balls thrown his way), and is now starting to make big plays. I’m excited to see what he does the next few weeks as the Colts play against a few good teams that have iffy at best defenses.