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Why the Colts' T.Y. Hilton is More than Just a Deep Threat

Jack Browne

The Indianapolis Colts' receiver makes big play after big play, but there is more to Hilton's game than just that. By breaking down his film we look at how the Colts receiver has learned to be productive in other areas of the field.

T.Y Hilton has a talent for the spectacular. The second-year receiver has become one of the most electrifying players in the entire league, ripping defenses to shreds with his raw speed and innate ability to go up and get the ball, despite his small stature.

The Colts' receiver is known primarily as a deep threat, which is understandable. In his first year Hilton averaged an insane 17.2 yards per catch and produced 13 plays over 20 yards and five plays over 40 yards. The Colts had a significant change in offensive philosophy in his second year, going from the aerial attack of Bruce Arians to the more conservative “no coast” offense of Pep Hamilton, however Hilton still excelled.

Hilton was hilariously overlooked for Darrius Heyward-Bey for the first half of the season until Reggie Wayne’s injury forced the coaches’ hands, allowing Hilton to become the focal point of the Colts passing offense. The young receiver’s yards per catch fell to a more ordinary 13.2 during the regular season, but Hilton still produced 13 plays over 20 yards and six plays over 40 yards. It was during the postseason that Hilton really announced himself on the national stage by producing one of the most impressive performances in playoff history. His stat line for the two games was 17 catches for 327 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged 19.2 yards per catch. 19.2!

This is just a roundabout way of saying one thing: T.Y Hilton can sure as hell make plays downfield!

But is that all Hilton is?

The general perception is that Hilton is just a deep threat, and as I just outlined, it’s easy to see why people view him that way. His highlight plays are so blinding that his other qualities aren’t seen. Hilton’s biggest strength is his ability to stretch the field, but he certainly isn’t Mike Wallace, a one trick pony who hasn’t developed the finer points of playing wide receiver. Let’s look at how Hilton has learned to be effective in the short passing game.


Hilton is lined up on the far side of the two-WR side of this formation. Johnathan Joseph is charged with covering Hilton and is playing extremely conservatively. The Texans clearly are terrified of Hilton’s speed as Joseph is playing 10 yards off Hilton when the play starts. Hilton is running an out route, but is able to keep Joseph in his off position by not going full speed, indicating he may try and accelerate past the cornerback. Joseph clearly thinks this is Hilton’s intention as he opens his hips and begins to turn in order to put himself in a position to run with Hilton if the receiver is running his normal deep route. Hilton uses this fear in order to give himself clear separation as he passes the first down marker and makes a sharp break to the outside. He does well to work his way back to the ball, again giving himself more separation to make the catch cleanly and gains the first down before Joseph can even touch him.

The key to this play is fear. Joseph is worried about Hilton’s ability to burn him on a go route and so he overcompensates by giving Hilton far too much room to work underneath. Hilton isn’t the biggest receiver and therefore being able to use the threat of his speed to keep cornerbacks off him is a great skill that he can continue to develop. Hilton shows subtle but significant skills in this play that shows he can be a productive receiver in the short passing game. He sells the go route with his body language, runs a crisp route and comes back to the ball. Nothing spectacular, but in an area of the field with little room to move receivers must develop the smaller skills in able to be effective. Hilton is doing that.


In this next play, the cornerback takes a completely opposite approach to defending the young speedster. Husain Abdullah is playing up tight in press man coverage, hoping to overpower the smaller receiver. Hilton is lined up in the inside left slot position and is running a stick route. Abdullah makes immediate contact with Hilton and it seems for a second he’ll affect the Colts receivers’ route. However, Hilton sticks his foot in the ground, sharply turning out to his left and uses his hands to smartly disengage with the Chiefs cornerback. Abdullah is thrown away from Hilton, who finishes his route and even makes a great adjustment to the ball which is thrown behind him.

Again these are just small things. Hilton sometimes does struggle with press coverage because of his small size, but as this play shows, he is more than capable of fighting through it. A combination of a great route and the well timed use of his hands make all the difference in this play for Hilton. He is able to produce in two very different forms of coverage in the shorter passing game and that makes him a much more versatile receiver.


The context of this play matters. Its 3rd and 2 on the opening drive of the game against the Texans. The Colts need a big catch to extend the drive as they famously struggled early on in games. Usually this would be Wayne’s area of expertise if not for his injury, but Hilton is able to do a great Wayne impression. Wayne beats people in simple ways. He runs such good routes that he doesn’t even give defenders a chance, and that’s what Hilton does on this play.

Hilton is lined up at the front of a bunch formation to Andrew Luck’s left. The cornerback lined up against him takes Griff Whalen as he attempts to cross the formation and Hilton is allowed a free release. Once again Joseph is tasked with defending Hilton and once again he isn’t very successful. The play is designed to get the ball out quickly to Hilton; this can be seen as Hilton makes his cut Luck has been watching him the whole way. The receiver makes a nice cut and turns in field. Again I’m talking about Hilton making sharp breaks in his routes, but rounding off the breaks of routes and allowing defenders that extra yard is the difference between a first down and a punt in this situation. Hilton gets his head turned as soon as he makes his break, giving himself enough time get ready for the ball. He makes the catch and then uses his body well to shield off the incoming Joseph.

This play is not spectacular, but moving the chains in these situations by passing the ball is so vital in the modern day NFL that it’s just as important as a 40-yard catch. Hilton needed to be more than just a deep threat, Hamilton’s offense relies on the short passing game and so in order to get his snaps Hilton had to refine his game, and his has. Speed receivers often just use their physical gifts in order to make plays, not realizing that their speed can be used just as effectively as a decoy to give themselves the space to work the underneath routes. In this play Hilton again shows his good route running skills and even that he can use his physicality to good effect.

Hilton may still be seen as just a deep threat, but he has quietly developed other areas of his game that enable him to be effective all over the field. These singular plays can’t show the entire process of the game, but watching Hilton’s tape highlights that these sorts of plays allows Hilton to be even more threatening downfield by showing defenses that he can run the shorter routes and therefore making them respect that when covering him.

The Colts need Hilton to continue to be the big play guy in their offense. He was the only reason their comeback against the Chiefs was possible because he brings a unique skill set to their offense. However he is more than that, much more. He is developing into a complete receiver, he might not be there just yet but it’s only his second year and he already is showing skills of a much more experienced player.

The next time Hilton streaks past a cornerback, splits the safeties and Luck finds him with a perfectly arcing deep ball, remember that it’s the little things that allow him to be spectacular.

***Stats via

Jack Browne is an Indianapolis Colts Team Journalist for Pro Football Spot. Follow Jack (@JackBrowne12).

Brian McMillan likes this
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Great article. It's amazing he is so young and get even better. Here's hoping he follows in Marvin's and Reggie's footsteps.

Thank you! I don't want to put too much pressure on him but he really could be the primary receiver in the Colts offense for years to come. He isn't your usual number 1 WR, but he should command so much attention it shouldn't matter.

Brian McMillan likes this

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Yet again a great explanation of points on the field and why his routes are so important and seamless. Wonderful job Jack

Thanks Matt!

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Excellent write up, Jack. You hit the nail on the head. The sky is the limit if Hilton can remain consistent.

Thanks! At times last year Hilton did struggle to perform consistently but that is understandable after Reggie went down and he saw more double coverage and attention. By the time the playoffs arrived he'd adjusted and showed everyone what he's capable of as the top receiver on the team.

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