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When T.Y. Hilton lines up across from Defensive Back X — who will maybe and probably be Aqib Talib — Saturday night as his Indianapolis Colts smash craniums with the New England Patriots, he’ll present a unique challenge. It’ll be the sort of fast, multi-faceted, and really fast approach from the slot and elsewhere that the Patriots’ secondary has seldom seen this year.

Hilton is primarily a slot receiver, but unlike Wes Welker (who the Patriots held to only 31 yards on eight catches) he’s not cemented to the slot, and he’s commonly moved around and used in a variety of alignments by offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Oddly, at least in terms of usage, one of the better comparisons we have on the Patriots’ 2013 regular-season schedule may be Jimmy Graham.

Yes, I’m fully aware that — even though he’s stupid fast for his size — Graham is slightly larger than Hilton. But the comparison still exists in the sense that Graham is moved around a lot too by the Saints while used as an in-line tight end, a slot receiver, and he’s split out wide. He’s a tight end in name only, and against the Patriots back in Week 6 Talib held Graham to zero everything: zero catches and zero receptions, despite six targets.

It was simply incredible, and please remember that we’re discussing a tight end who averaged 75.9 yards per game, and finished the regular season with 1,215 receiving yards overall. He also led the league in receiving touchdowns with 16.

The most absurd number associated with Talib through the conclusion of that game, though, is this one: 30.8. That’s the passer rating he had allowed over six games — creeping close to half the season — when balls were thrown in his direction, which is a daunting number from the man who could line up against Hilton for the majority of the evening Saturday (more on that forthcoming). Or it would be if Talib was still the same corner after that game against Graham.

During his shutdown effort Talib suffered a hip injury which would then keep him out for the next three games through the Patriots’ Week 10 bye. Then when he returned in Week 11, Talib re-injured his hip against the Carolina Panthers in the fourth quarter, and before that he clearly wasn’t at all himself while trying to stay with Steve Smith. When the night ended, Smith had burned Talib early for a 42-yard catch, which is significant because Smith had only four catches this year of over even 20 yards.

Talib also tried to eat Smith’s leg or something, and then he forever entered the catchphrase lexicon as the subject of this…

Talib recorded 13 passes defensed this year, only two of which came after that Carolina loss. And although he intercepted four passes, he hasn’t had a pick since Week 4. Quickly this is becoming much better news for Hilton, a fast and versatile receiver who promptly exploited the absence of Brandon Flowers during the Colts’ 28-point Wild Card Weekend comeback insanity.

The performance of Talib since that Week 11 re-injury has been, at best, wildly inconsistent against receivers who are also quite good at running really fast and catching balls. Here’s how the Patriots’ secondary finished this season against some notable names staring in Week 12:

  • Demaryius Thomas: 41 yards on four receptions, with a touchdown
  • Andre Johnson: 121 yards on eight receptions
  • Josh Gordon: 151 yards on seven catches with a touchdown
  • Mike Wallace: 105 yards on six receptions, with a touchdown
  • Torrey Smith: 69 yards on three catches

That math is a combined 337 yards allowed to Johnson, Gordon, and Wallace, and the latter averaged only 58.1 yards per game this year. But the other math isn’t nearly as inviting for Hilton. Torrey Smith and Demaryius Thomas have similar speed and secondary combusting ability, yet they were held to only a combined 110 yards.

Yet even with those two sucking down our five-game sample size of the five bestest of the best that New England faced to close out the season, the per game receiving average we arrive at is still ungood: 97.4 yards per game, and that’s only including a select few, while excluding Jordan Cameron’s 121 yards. When we let everyone into party, we see that over the last five weeks with Talib kind of, sort of healthy, the Patriots allowed an average of 277.4 passing yards per game.

This is the part when I would usually shrug my shoulders, cop out, and say something like “WELP, I guess it just depends which Talib/Patriots secondary shows up then”. But hold on a second there, generic conclusion, because Hilton’s aforementioned versatility adds another dimension.

Hilton has lined up more often in the slot since Reggie Wayne’s season-ending ACL tear, an area where he’s still highly effective. Why, just look at his eventual game-winning catch that completed the Colts’ improbable comeback, stunning Kansas City.

Hamilton often uses trips and bunch formations which overload one side, and here Hilton released from the middle. The cluster creates confusion with its three quickly extending routes, all of varying depths. LaVon Brazil ran the short hook, while Coby Fleener was assigned the intermediate out, and with those two drawing eyes short, Hilton then ran a deep post.

Here’s what Andrew Luck saw just before he let it fly…

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That’s a lot of green straight ahead deep down the middle, and Kendrick Lewis’ back after Hilton had already beat him. In a zone coverage the safety was forced to look between Fleener and Hilton. A glance at Fleener for just a split second led to Lewis turning himself around, and that was more than enough. The resulting catch was Hilton’s third of 60 yards or more this season, and it accounted for a sizable chunk of his 224 yards (a franchise record) on the day.

The catch also came in a game when Hilton was targeted 18 times, and as CSN New England’s Mike Giardi observed, he saw them from a variety of alignments.

 

 

That moving leads to a matchup problem, and the question of whether or not Talib will shadow Hilton as he did with Graham. The better comparison here may be to Smith, a receiver who’s closer to Hilton’s build, and one that Talib struggled with. It’s a question Talib is predictably saying little about, though his recent usage this season indicates he may spend little time in the slot when Hilton is there (he’s covered multiple wide receivers every game since Week 14, and he’s been assigned to the slot on only nine percent of his snaps).

Though his movement around the formation is indeed frequent, following Wayne’s injury Hilton has lined up in the slot on 55.6 percent of his snaps. That’s where he thrives, and remarkably of his 1,086 receiving yards during the regular season, 505 of them came on catches of 20 yards or more. Kaboom.

Giardi also compared Hilton to a healthy Danny Amendola, which feels accurate. Talib and the Patriots’ secondary will then have to contend with a receiver who comes at them from a wide spectrum of looks and alignments, and deep beatings have been common. Nate Dunlevy notes that Luck has targeted Hilton 29 times on balls that traveled 20 yards or more past the line of scrimmage, and that’s ended in 13 receptions with four touchdowns.

Pressure needs to invade Luck’s much protected personal space quickly, or more deep hurt from Hilton is coming.

 

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