Stat Analysis
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Factors: T.Y. Hilton

Factors: T.Y. Hilton
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

Have you enjoyed Cian Fahey's recent breakdowns of NFL cornerbacks like Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis?

While preparing to write about the AFC South for Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, I was inspired to do a similar analysis on individual wide receivers, although the system ended up a bit different than the one used on cornerbacks. We'll start with Indianapolis speedster T.Y. Hilton.

To analyze Hilton, I watched every throw during the 2013 regular season where our play-by-play data has him listed as the main target. It would have been nice to watch the playoffs too -- heck, it would be nicer to just watch every snap he played -- but if I want to study more than four players, I had to find a way to shorten this.

I looked at where Hilton was lined up before each snap, and then gave an educated guess on whether he was facing man or zone coverage. This can be hard to tell at times, and I still don't think my eye for film matches up with the best in the industry, but I did my best. I don't come into this looking to make sweeping conclusions based on the data we use, and I don't come into this column looking to have a final say on anything.

The target totals listed below don't quite match the total listed on our wide receiver stats page because we did not consider certain plays, including:

  • Hail Mary attempts
  • Clear throwaways by an under-pressure Andrew Luck
  • Balls that were tipped at the line of scrimmage

and, most amusingly...

  • A ball that poetically bounced off of Darrius Heyward-Bey's hands before Hilton plucked it from the air -- which was credited as a target for Hilton -- in Week 2

Here are my observations:


"Behind the line of scrimmage" includes passes that traveled less than one yard, "Short" indicates passes that traveled between 1-15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and "Deep" indicates passes that traveled 16 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

1. T.Y. Hilton screen plays weren't very effective last season

The Colts had just a 38 percent success rate when running screens to Hilton. Of course, if you want to play Devil's Advocate, you could say something along the lines of [ANY TRENT RICHARDSON JOKE EVER]. But Richardson, even in an abysmal year, managed a 43 percent success rate. There was also Donald Brown. Or designed bootlegs for the best running back on the team, Andrew Luck.

It's not that Hilton isn't fast -- he definitely is -- but rather that he's not very elusive in the open field. Our current charting lists Hilton with only five broken tackles this year, and only one of those came on a screen pass. He can follow blockers well, but tends to rack up a few too many horizontal yards trying to get them involved in the play.

So we're left to ponder: is this a permanent scheme change-up by Pep Hamilton, or is it a reaction to how poor the interior line and Richardson were last year? If it's the former, I think they'd be well-served looking into some wider splits. The Colts loved to bunch three receivers/tight ends close to the line of scrimmage on one side, and run screens off that when they were met with only one player over the bunch. He also had a tendency to put Hilton in motion on the screens. There were a few too many schematic tells.

Also, you know, they could use a receiver that can actually make people miss in open space.


"Slot" plays include all plays in which a receiver was inside of another receiver, regardless of how tight to the line he was or if there were multiple slot receivers in the play.

2. Reggie Wayne's absence meant it was time for Hilton to learn about the slot

Of Hilton's targets in the slot, just 13 of them came prior to Reggie Wayne's ACL tear against the Broncos in Week 7. So, roughly 77 percent of the time, his targets were coming as an outside receiver. Once Wayne was lost, and the Colts had to re-focus their passing game around the speedster, those numbers flipped to 48 of 80 targets -- Hilton was now predominantly a slot receiver.

I don't have the numbers to back this up with Wayne, because I haven't studied his targets yet, but it sure seems like being in the slot is a more effective place for Colts receivers in the Hamilton offense. He had a 62.5 percent success rate there (8.58 YPA) after Wayne went down, and a 54 percent success rate in the slot overall. This, of course, jives with what I'd call "smart football people" wisdom that the slot is becoming the place where you want to park your best receivers.

The Colts did tend to use a variety of route concepts for Hilton in the slot. While I think their most-used play was having him drag across the line of scrimmage on underneath zones, they managed to not be too obvious with this.


3. Hilton's biggest weakness was his inability to deal with physicality

The two worst games Hilton had from a pure numbers perspective were against the Broncos (2-of-11, 27 yards) and against the Cardinals (5-of-9, 38 yards, 1 DPI drawn). The Cardinals had a real simple solution: let's put Patrick Peterson on him. The Broncos, though, were able to maintain tight coverage on Hilton with Chris Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and they got some licks in on Hilton at the top of his routes. (They also had a surprising amount of linebacker and safety pass breakups in that game, but that's neither here nor there.)

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Hilton had a lot of success on deep passes, but this is not because he's great at getting up and snatching 50-50 balls. He did snatch a back shoulder ball against Brent Grimes in Week 2, but that's generally not his game -- as you'd expect from a 5-foot-10, 183 pound (listed) receiver, I might add.

And the Colts know about these limitations. I can't remember more than two or three receptions where Hilton beat a jam coverage and actually was in good position to make a play on the ball. But, this is partially because Indianapolis didn't put him in very many situations where they asked him to do that. We charted how many times he was off the line of scrimmage compared to on it, and only 22 percent of his targets came with him actually lined up level with the linemen.

4. The reason his physicality doesn't matter is that Hilton's double move is disgusting.

Other than quick crosses underneath, the vast majority of Hilton's successful routes came because of his best attribute: his double move. He hits second gear off a stutter-step at a ridiculously quick level, and cornerbacks without the recovery speed to deal with it have to play him conservatively. In his matchups with Johnathan Joseph, Hilton was given a ton of underneath cushion out of respect for the double move. He exploited this on curl routes (even though his stop can get sort of rounded), and then burnt Joseph with the double move on a long touchdown for good measure.

Janoris Jenkins is still trying to figure out where Hilton went. Even though the Rams crushed the Colts, Hilton's double move left Jenkins in the dust on multiple occasions. A rare Andrew Luck overthrow and a surprisingly common Hilton stumble kept two pretty sure touchdowns off the board.

Taking the body of work into consideration, it's hard to imagine Hilton suddenly getting tougher or stronger, adding more contested catches into his repertoire, or suddenly becoming more elusive. His body type just doesn't make any of those things likely. But as long as the double move continues to be frightening and the Colts keep him off the line, I don't see much reason to believe in non-injury regression. If he could have kept his feet on a few long balls this year he would've added a few extra long touchdowns. And if the Colts get the same old Reggie Wayne back next year -- or fix Hakeem Nicks' problems from the past few years -- and get Hilton matched up against a few more lower-string cornerbacks, there's a chance we haven't seen his peak season yet.


4 comments, Last at 03 Apr 2014, 9:25pm

1 Re: Factors: T.Y. Hilton

As a Colts fan who watches all their games, IMO he's an awesome #2 receiver. He put up big numbers sometimes last year as the #1, but you don't really want him as your #1. He can toast a #2 cornerback (or a second-rate #1 cornerback), but last year he tended to disappear against good #1s for the reasons noted here. If they can get Reggie Wayne back healthy as the #1, TY Hilton as the #2, and Nicks replacing DHB (should have a much higher catch rate at a minimum) that corps could be scary.

2 Re: Factors: T.Y. Hilton

I'll be honest, I find the idea that Wayne at age 36 and coming off a knee surgery can still be a number one to be a stretch. League-average is the ceiling for the Indy receivers next year unless Brazill or Rogers make an unexpected leap.

3 Re: Factors: T.Y. Hilton

That's reasonable. As a homer I guess I'm just hopeful ;o) Rogers is a real wild-card...he could languish or he could quickly be the #1, I really have no idea.

4 Re: Factors: T.Y. Hilton

Average as a crew, Nate? Without injury, I think they'll be better than that. Not the type of top-5 group that will scare anybody too much, but there's not likely to be a real weak link anywhere. I agree that there is not an obvious #1, but that just means that an opponent's superstar CB will cover somebody and be under-utilized (i.e. wasted). Revis and his ilk can't cover two guys at once. And I think the Colts group of solid #2 level guys is capable of doing damage on an above-average level (that might be Luck-biased). Wayne is a crafty vet with great hands and routes--his cutting may be diminished and his speed surely will be, but he's not a burner, so it's mainly his cutting I am worried about. TY is a good deep threat. Nicks was a 1,000-yard WR for a couple years and last year did okay in Eli's worst season ever. Rodgers, IMO, will likely be one of those guys who can trash an opponent for an 8-140-2 game one week, and have a few drops or disappear the next. So when he shows up, the WR corps will appear very good, and when he doesn't, they'll appear average. Whalen/Brazill should be reliable/average.

And then there's the maturing Fleener/Allen weaponry at TE which should lessen the opponents' ability to blanket the WRs--an external factor that will make the WR corps more productive (because LBs underneath will be occupied, Safeties will have added weaponry to worry about, and fewer double-teams are available).

Years ago, when Harrison was the only real threat, if opponents took him away (which happened a bit in the playoffs) Manning didn't have a lot of horsepower at the next level. Langhorne? Pathon? Ismail? Craphonso Thorpe? Aromashodu? Dawkins? (Am I venturing into pre-Manning years?) The Colts may not have such a high, high peak of WR supremacy in any one guy right now, but I think if you take away one guy with your best CB, we have an above-average squad to fill in. No one-two punch like the Bears, no Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson, but a seasoned and solid squad.

What're the phrases to describe two different kinds of knowledge--an inch deep and a mile wide versus an inch wide and a mile deep? The Colts appear to be an inch deep but a mile wide at WR. They still need to find a future #1 but, barring injury and any Hamiltonian scheme flaws (2.9 yards and a cloud of black rubber pellets), I'd be surprised if Luck didn't throw for 4,000 yards and 28 TDs. That's above-average, no?