INDIANAPOLIS – It’s probably taken longer than anticipated, but that was what Chris Ballard, Frank Reich and their personnel staff envisioned in April.
It was Michael Pittman Jr. running a crossing pattern, grabbing a Philip Rivers’ pass in stride, turning upfield and running through the heart of the Packers’ defense for a 45-yard touchdown in the Indianapolis Colts’ 34-31 overtime win over Green Bay.
And it was Jonathan Taylor adding balance to the Rivers-led passing game with 90 yards on 22 carries, including 72 yards on 15 attempts after halftime.
Pittman was Ballard’s first pick in the April draft, a second-rounder and the 34th overall selection.
Taylor was taken shortly thereafter, but only after Ballard, concerned the ultra-productive running back out of Wisconsin wouldn’t last until the 44th pick, moved up to get him at No. 41.
Remember the objective entering the draft.
“We knew we needed to add some explosive playmakers, and that’s where Pittman and Taylor come into the equation,’’ Ballard said.
For the first time against the Packers, that rookie combination made an impact on the same day. Pittman was the Colts’ leading receiver (66 yards, including the run-after-the-catch TD, on three catches) and Taylor the ground workhorse.
Each has endured a herky-jerky rookie season.
Taylor has had his moments after leading rusher Marlon Mack suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the opener at Jacksonville. He posted his first 100-yard outing in his first start in week 2 against Minnesota (101 yards on 26 attempts).
But subpar run blocking by the offensive line and some early indecisiveness by Taylor has contributed to a rookie season that has been more workmanlike than spectacular. Before regaining form against the Packers, he endured a three-game stretch that netted 61 yards on 24 attempts (2.5 per rush).
Taylor’s inability to truly seize the moment has convinced the team to stick with its backs-by-committee approach. Whichever one has been hot – Jordan Wilkins one game, Nyheim Hines the next, Taylor the next – has been given the bulk of the work.
Pittman’s rookie season, meanwhile, actually has involved two phases. His transition from USC standout to Colts newbie also has been impeded – which is the case with every rookie across the league – as the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the entire on-field offseason work and condensed training camp.
Complicating Pittman’s development was a compartment syndrome issue with his leg, an injury suffered week 3 against the New York Jets that worsened in the evening. It resulted in emergency surgery and a three-week stint on the injured reserve list.
Since returning, the 6-4, 223-pounder has flashed the potential that was so evident at USC.
Pittman had just one catch for 6 yards in his first game back at Detroit, but has since emerged as the most productive wideout. In the last three games, his 223 yards lead the team while his 15 receptions are tied with Zach Pascal. In the last two games, Pittman has been responsible for the two longest receptions (the 45-yard TD against Green Bay and a 40-yarder at Tennessee) and the longest run from scrimmage (a 21-yarder on an end around against the Titans).
“To anybody in this building, I don’t think it’s a surprise that Pitt’s playing good,’’ Hines said. “Pitt has been making the most of the opportunities.’’
When he initially returned from the leg injury, Pittman had to push the reset button in many regards.
“When you get hurt,’’ he said, “it’s more than just physical. It took me the couple of games to get my mindset back and just get that confidence back. Then I (had) been out of football for four weeks, so I had to get back in shape.’’
Added coordinator Nick Sirianni: “The injury kind of slowed him down. Now he’s just back to where we thought he was going to be when we drafted him.’’
That’s providing Rivers with a big target and doing something with the football when he gets it in his hands. On the 21-yard run against the Titans, Pittman sought out a defender or two to hit rather than veer out of bounds.
“He looked explosive, like a beast with the football in his hand,’’ Reich said in his post-game conference call. “Had a chance to get him going.’’
A few days later, he elaborated on Pittman’s impact and its importance as the Colts look to return to the playoffs. The offensive staff, including receivers coach Mike Groh, and Rivers had agreed the offense required more of Pittman.
Entering the Titans’ game, there was a consensus that “‘if we’re going to go where we want to go, he’s going to have to be a guy – an important part, a cog in the wheel – of what we’re doing. Let’s build off this momentum,’’’ Reich said. “There was a conscious effort to get the ball to him the way we did.
“We saw this in his college days. I remember Chris and I talking a lot about this, but this guy is fearless now. He’s fearless in every way, but when the ball is in his hands, he wants to hurt somebody. He runs very aggressively.’’
That’s primarily because Pittman finally has settled in. He’s dealt with the largely inactive offseason, the shortened camp and the injury.
“It started rough, but I feel like it’s getting better as I just start getting more healthy, comfortable,’’ Pittman said. “I feel like everything is trending upwards.
“Part of it is I actually know what I’m doing and I have confidence in what I’m doing versus when we first started I wasn’t really reading defense. I wasn’t sure of my routes (and) assignments. But now I feel more sure of myself.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.