FOXBORO, Mass. — When the Indianapolis Colts lost All-Pro wide receiver Reggie Wayne to a torn ACL in Week 7, they needed someone to step up in his place.
Enter T.Y. Hilton.
The second-year wide receiver made an immediate impact after the Colts’ Week 8 bye. He caught seven passes for 121 yards and three touchdowns in Week 9 against the Houston Texans and had seven catches for 130 yards in Week 10 against the St. Louis Rams. If he was still flying under the radar, that all ended in the Colts’ wild-card round playoff matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Florida International product caught 13 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. And now the New England Patriots have to find a way to stop him.
Hilton’s big-play ability is his biggest strength. His versatility is dangerous, too, though. It’s rare to see a wideout who can catch 65-yard bombs and spend half his time in the slot, working the middle of the field.
The Patriots will likely need to prepare for Hilton differently depending where he’s lined up on the field, whether it’s outside or inside.
“I think you need to know where he’s at,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “That’s the key. It all starts with knowing where he’s at, then trying to have an understanding of how he can hurt you from each different position he’s out there. I think they do a good job of using him in different ways cause teams are keying in on him and want to know where he’s at. They’re doing a great job of putting him in positions to be successful.”
Before Wayne went down, Hilton spent 63 of his 296 snaps in the slot (21.3 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. After Wayne was lost for the season, Hilton spent 301 of his 541 snaps in the slot (55.6 percent). At the same time, 505 of Hilton’s 1,086 yards this season came on receptions of over 20 yards. Out of his 13 plays of over 20 yards, only one came on a shallow pass from quarterback Andrew Luck, a 41-yarder against the Jaguars in Week 17.
So, Hilton is the rare deep threat who can still catch 76.7 percent of the passes thrown his way in the slot (that number drops to 48.6 percent when Hilton is lined up outside, though his yards per reception are much higher). Luck was impressed with how his wide receiver transformed from an athlete, who was as well known for his return ability as his receiving skills in college, to a versatile wideout.
“It’s phenomenal,” Luck said. “Everyone knows he’s a great athlete. It’s awesome to see him do so well this year because he’s worked at his craft. In the offseason, this year, last year. He’s always in Reggie’s ear about how to get open, tricks of the trade to use. He’s a special football player and works every day to get better. And deserves all the success he gets.”
It’s unclear how the Patriots will try to cover Hilton. They might need to match up with him differently depending on whether he’s lined up in the slot or outside. Many assume All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib will trail Hilton across the field, but the Pro Bowler has had trouble with quicker, shiftier receivers this season, most notably Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers. Hilton’s a slighter wide receiver, but he’s proven to be tough to jam coming off the line.
“They run different routes,” Talib said about receivers like Hilton. “They get different balls thrown to them. Big guys get 50-50 balls, they get balls just thrown up to them. Guys like [Hilton] run over routes and crossing routes and routes where he can use his speed to run away from guys.”
Talib wouldn’t confirm or deny whether he was set to take on Hilton this weekend.
“I get my assignment when I come to work, whatever it is,” Talib said. “I prepare and to the best of my ability I get that done.”
Cornerback Kyle Arrington makes the most sense to cover Hilton with a lot of help from McCourty over the top. Arrington’s at his best when he’s covering the slot; he’s also New England’s fastest cornerback.
“Obviously, T.Y. had a great game last weekend,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. “He’s a dynamic football player, he’s fast, he’s quick, he has good hands, he makes a lot of things happen after the catch, so he’s a guy that we’re just going to have to understand where he’s at on the field, how they’re trying to get him the ball, along with all those other guys — Donald Brown, [Coby] Fleener, [Levon] Brazill, all the other guys on the outside. Those guys are fast guys, guys that are playmakers, guys that can hurt you if you don’t understand where they are on the field, so we’ll take it one day at a time.”
There are few players in the NFL like Hilton, though the most similar comparisons are Smith, who’s more physical, and DeSean Jackson, who’s not as efficient at catching the football. There’s no easy answer for shutting Hilton down, but New England has taken out more imposing targets than Hilton this season.