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Film Room: Analyzing T.Y Hilton’s play in 2020

Hilton hasn’t had the year we thought he would in 2020

Tennessee Titans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There was a lot of excitement for T.Y Hilton in this Colts offense in 2020 prior to the season. Coming off an injury plagued season where he had a quarterback who struggled to push the ball anywhere down the field, the addition of Philip Rivers seemed like it would be a good fit. However the result has been a measly 33 catches for 408 yards and 1 touchdown for the former star wide receiver.

So what has happened to this once electric deep threat? Has he lost a step? Is he not getting open? Is Rivers just missing him? Well I jump into the film room in today’s piece to get to the bottom of why T.Y Hilton is simply not producing in 2020.

Route Running is still a Strength

Let me dispel one rumor to start this piece off. The issue isn’t that Hilton isn’t getting open or that he is struggling as a route runner in 2020. His quickness is still outstanding and his ability to turn the corner on speed outs and ins is still borderline unguardable. When he can work into a defender’s blind spot in either off man coverage or zone, that is when he thrives because he can quickly break to the outside before any corner in the league can react. Look at this masterful route against a promising young corner in C.J Henderson.

This ability as a route runner is why Hilton has simply killed off man coverage this season. He is a veteran receiver who knows how to win at the top of his routes and that lateral ability really puts a strain on defenders. He gets an off man look here with no help over the top and no help over the middle. That is basically a free win for a receiver who has been in the league as long as Hilton.

Whether it has been in the slot or on the outside, Hilton has been able to win in the short and intermediate windows with his route running. When him and Rivers are on the same page, it has led to some beautiful passes along the sideline. Look at the footwork and sudden change of direction by Hilton on this route. He has very little room to work with along the sideline but is still able to make it work with his natural ability and quickness as a route runner.

Lack of Deep Ball is killing him on the Outside

The main issue in why his production has been down though is that he has simply lost a step in terms of his speed. This isn’t me calling him slow by any means but he isn’t the field stretching outside threat that he once was. This in turn has led to teams having much more confidence getting in his face and pressing at the line since it is now a bit easier to receiver if he were to win at the line. The result has been pretty good for defenses as Hilton is a smaller receiver and has struggled a bit with lengthy corners and beating them off the line of scrimmage.

This is another good example of where teams are with Hilton’s deep speed. How often would we see a defense line up with a corner in press man with no help over the top against Hilton in say 2018? If we ever did see this we knew it would be a huge play for the offense at least. Now though teams understand that they can disrupt that timing at the line by pressing Hilton and it isn’t as likely that he will outrace the corner for a huge gain.

T.Y. Hilton is still a great athlete who can stretch the field vertically but he just isn’t where he once was in this regard. Even when he gets a corner in off man coverage and turns the corner around, he still isn’t pulling away like he used to. This ball is very underthrown by Rivers but I feel like we would have seen Hilton with more than a half step on this corner a few years ago. This loss in speed has hurt an aspect of the game where Hilton used to torment defenses throughout his career.

Maybe the answer is a move to the Slot?

So how can Hilton adjust his game and how can the Colts salvage some production from him to finish this season? Well in my opinion, I think it should involve moving him to the slot. I mentioned above that his ability as a route runner is still fantastic and he would be able to feast in the slot with that ability. Unlike lining up outside, a slot receiver faces a lot more off coverage and even if they do get pressed, it would be from a safety in the box or a slot corner who isn’t as lengthy as an outside guy (typically). Hilton would be able to work that short to intermediate area effectively as a slot receiver.

He has been able to kill opposing defenses from the slot with his route running. Off man coverage is easier to manipulate from the slot with the way the Colts utilize stack releases bunch formations. Those little extra steps that the Colts can scheme for Hilton on his defender could lead to him being one of the more effective intermediate receivers in the league. Look at how he works the sideline on these two plays from that slot position.

While this is a play where he lined up on the outside, I want to highlight his eyes and how he moves in zone coverage. He has developed so well over the years in terms of reading and understanding how defenses use their zone coverages. If he were moved to the slot, he could truly take advantage of defenses and attack areas where he sees openings in the intermediate game. We have already seen Rivers have some success targeting Zach Pascal in the slot on plays like that but with Hilton, it could be even better with his quickness and speed advantage.

So why has he struggled?

To prepare for this piece, i watched every single passing attempt from the Colts this season. Like most things in this sport, there wasn’t just one reason for Hilton’s struggles this year. Here is the list I was able to come up with:

  • Hilton has lost a step in terms of speed which is allowing defenses to press him much more and feel confident that he won’t beat them deep as easily.
  • However, teams are still committing more coverage to him than typical receivers (like when the Bengals shadowed him with William Jackson).
  • He has been a bit miscast in the Colts offense as his skillset fits the slot more than being a true outside guy.
  • Rivers’ tendency to more through his progressions to the checkdown quickly has hurt Hilton on some long developing plays.
  • Early season drops by Hilton certainly hurt some of the chemistry between Rivers and Hilton early.
  • Lastly, a crazy inordinate amount of penalties have been drawn by Hilton this year. My off hand count is at least 9 drawn in the passing game. If he converts one or two of those for actual catches, his stats look much better.

Final Thoughts

Unlike what the stats would suggest, I do not think that Hilton is “washed” or done by any means. However I do think his days as a bonafide number one receiver could be. I think this is eerily similar to the Reggie Wayne situations the Colts had years ago. A star receiver that still has plenty to offer, just in a different role.

To me, that role is more as a slot receiver. He is an excellent route runner who can win matchups when he has space to work with. He just needs the offense to create some space to work with. I hope we see the Colts work him there a bit more this year or we might be seeing the last of Hilton in a Colts’ uniform.

Overall though he is still a player that can contribute to this offense, just likely in a different way than we have seen throughout his career. If the Colts can get him in the slot and utilize him on more option routes and stacked releases out of bunch, I could see a successful end of the year for Hilton.