Alec Pierce, Colts' young pass-catchers earning trust in big moments

INDIANAPOLIS -- Colts receiver Alec Pierce broke loose and began streaking toward the back corner of the end zone, a full yard of separation between him and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. His quarterback, Matt Ryan, delivered a precise throw that hit both of Pierce’s hands without causing him to break stride. It looked for all the world like a surefire touchdown.

Then, Pierce promptly dropped the ball.

The first game of his first NFL season would be marked by a major disappointment for the Colts’ rookie. His would-be touchdown could have produced a victory in an eventual tie with the Houston Texans in Week 1.

But in the intervening weeks, Pierce has continued to emerge and gain the trust of his quarterback and coaches. So have young tight ends Jelani Woods and Kylen Granson. Meanwhile, veteran receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell continue making their usual contributions.

Add it all up, and the Colts suddenly have a plethora of pass-catching options that give them justifiable reason to believe they can reverse the fortunes of one of the NFL’s worst offenses in 2022. Could we be seeing the makings of the best collection of young pass-catching talent the Colts have had in years?

“We just have a lot of young players stepping up,” said Pittman, who caught 13 passes for 134 yards in Sunday’s 34-27 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. “Tight ends, receivers, running backs, too. We have a lot of young players making plays. It’s going to look good for the next couple of years here.”

Perhaps no player looked better than Pierce did in grabbing the game-winning, 32-yard touchdown pass from Ryan with 17 seconds remaining, giving Ryan his third game-winning drive in six games this season. It was a huge moment when viewed in contrast with Pierce’s disappointing debut in September. The coaching staff and Ryan put their faith in the hands of a 22-year-old second-round pick from the University of Cincinnati.

And Pierce delivered.

The strategy for Pierce was simple. The Colts dialed up an option route that called for him to run a slant if the defense played off, or a go route if it was press-man coverage. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin lined up directly across from Pierce, preparing to press. Pierce, recalling the advice of receivers coach Reggie Wayne, gave Griffin an initial stutter step before opening up and running by him with his ample speed. Ryan delivered a perfect throw and the Colts regained the lead for good.

“Hats off to Alec,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “… He had so much poise on the release.”

To put in context what transpired Sunday, consider the following: The Colts moved to a more up-tempo offensive attack, something that requires young players to be precise and execute without the benefit of a huddle. With top running backs Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines out with injuries, the Colts also relied heavily on the passing game against a team with a formidable defense.

With mostly young players on the other end of Ryan’s stunning 58 pass attempts, the range of possibilities was broad. Of the Colts’ top five leaders in receptions, fourth-year players Pittman and Ashton Dulin are the only ones with more than three years of NFL experience. Woods, the team’s leader in touchdown receptions (three), is a rookie third-round pick from the University of Virginia.

Given the youth, the Colts’ front office was peppered with questions about the inexperience of the receiving options throughout the offseason. But general manager Chris Ballard and staff were defiant in their belief in the upside of their existing group. There were flirtations with bringing back longtime Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton as recently as training camp. There also were earlier conversations about other free agents that never materialized into anything.

Was it risky? Certainly. But now it seems the requisite growing pains are being followed by, well, growth.

“You grow from all your experiences like that,” Pierce said, referring to his dropped touchdown. “I just told myself I want to be out there and be relaxed and not be all stressed about what’s going on with the play. It’s a lot as a rookie with all that’s going on with the playbook and all that. So, I just told myself to slow myself down and just go out there and play ball.”

The Colts’ passing yards total (389) Sunday was a dramatic change from the production of previous weeks. That was, in part, due to the Colts finding an effective approach with their no-huddle offense and yet another offensive-line combination -- the Colts moved Matt Pryor to right guard and rotated Bernhard Raimann and Dennis Kelly at left tackle, and the unit produced its best collective performance of the season. Whether the passing game can maintain its production remains to be seen, but it can never happen under any circumstances if the Colts’ pass-catchers don’t continue their emergence.

“We trust all those guys,” Ryan said. “I’m proud of the guys.”

And that trust hasn’t been given. It has been earned with big plays in big moments by some of the Colts’ youngest players.