Frank Reich needs to play Nyheim Hines more with Colts desperate for reliable targets

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INDIANAPOLIS — Frank Reich, Matt Ryan and the rest of the offensive staff need to make a litany of changes to the Colts offense after a performance Reich called “pathetic” in a shutout loss to Jacksonville on Sunday.

Emphasizing Nyheim Hines in an Indianapolis offense desperate for reliable receiving options should be one of those changes.

A change that Reich already promised this offseason was on its way.

“If I was going to be in a fantasy league, I think I’d pick Nyheim this year,” Reich joked in May, hinting the team’s satellite back would be a bigger part of the offense.

To some extent, Hines has seen an increased role in the passing game through the first two weeks of the season.

Hines has 10 catches for 87 yards in the first two games, already a quarter of the way toward the career-low 40 catches he made in 16 games in 2021.

But Sunday’s loss to the Jaguars made it clear that there’s a lot more the Colts can do to make Hines a focal point of the passing game, and that the Indianapolis passing game needs to explore all of those possibilities if the Colts are going to turn around an ugly start to the season.

More:Insider: All Matt Ryan and the Colts have done so far is highlight each other’s weaknesses

Hines has played just 28.9% of the team’s 141 offensive snaps so far, limiting his chances to make an impact. The team’s satellite back lined up in the slot on the game’s first play and caught a 19-yard slant from Ryan, then took a screen for 4 yards on the third play of the game.

But as the game went on and the Colts remained stuck in neutral, Hines’s role diminished. The veteran back played 15 of the team’s 50 plays, a workload that was actually a tick higher than the 28% he’d played in the opener against Houston.

“In our first 15 scripted, he was really scheduled to get involved quite a bit,” Reich said. “We opened up with him, tried to throw a screen to him early. We had another play in the first drive that we had him targeted that didn’t come up quite the way we wanted. … When you’re at 50, or in the high 40s, in plays, that’s going to limit everybody as far as snap counts.”

What is puzzling is that the role Hines played in the first 15 snaps did not carry over to the rest of the game, and it’s even more of a concern, given the injuries Indianapolis was facing at wide receiver.

Rookie Alec Pierce was ruled out due to a concussion on Friday. No. 1 target Michael Pittman Jr. was ruled out on Saturday.

With those two players, and particularly Pittman Jr., out of action, the Colts needed reliable help at wide receiver, a spot the team often talked about using Hines more this offseason. When Reich and general manager Chris Ballard were peppered with questions about the team’s lack of proven talent at wide receiver, they almost always mentioned Hines.

“I don’t want to overlook Nyheim and what Nyheim can bring,” Ballard said in an answer about the wide receivers at his pre-training camp press conference.

Even with Pittman Jr. and Pierce out of action, the Colts did not use Hines much at wide receiver Sunday. Four wide receivers — Parris Campbell (43), Mike Strachan (35), Ashton Dulin (32) and Dezmon Patmon (24) — played significantly more snaps than Hines.

Only Dulin produced more than Hines in the passing game. Campbell was targeted twice without a catch, Strachan made one catch in three targets and Patmon caught two balls in six targets, a run that included a key drop on third down.

Reich’s explanation for avoiding the use of Hines at receiver boiled down to a lack of time to adjust the role.

“It was Thursday, and I was thinking Alec and Pittman were both playing at that point,” Reich said. “We find out Friday that Alec’s not playing and Saturday, Pitt’s not playing. It would be harder to adjust Nyheim to that at the end of the week, and it’d be easier to adjust the (other) receivers.”

The easy path isn’t always the best one to take.

While Hines might not profile as the same type of outside receiver that Pittman Jr. or Pierce is, the rest of the Colts receiving corps can play on the outside if Indianapolis wants to use Hines in the slot. By putting Hines on the field more as a wide receiver, the Colts could give Ryan the sort of safety valve that hasn’t emerged this season outside of Pittman Jr.’s brilliance when healthy.

Emphasizing Hines in the script isn’t enough.

Considering his efficiency, Hines has to be a significant part of the offense throughout the game, even if his 8.7 yards per catch aren’t as high as the wide receiver’s numbers. Indianapolis desperately needed more yards on first and second down to get rolling Sunday and get the ball to Jonathan Taylor, and Hines can provide those kinds of yards.

“Whenever it comes down to him not getting enough carries, one of the factors — it’s not the only factor — one of the factors is that we’re poor on third down,” Reich said. “We were third-and-long all day. It’s hard to get enough runs to Jonathan, and then you fall behind, you’re trying to play catch-up.”

Reich cited Taylor’s bell-cow status in the offense as another reason Hines hasn’t played much so far.

But playing at Hines at wide receiver more often would allow the Colts to keep both players on the field more often. The two backs have played eight snaps together in two games, and although it hasn’t yet been as spectacularly successful this season as it was in 2021, playing Hines at receiver more often would make it easier to adjust late in the week if the Colts face injuries at the receiver position again.

As bad as the Indianapolis offense has been through the first two weeks, the Colts have to consider those kinds of changes.

“Being realistic about where we’re at and what we have to do to improve is important,” Ryan said on Sunday. “It has to be brutal honesty, and we’ve got find ways to play the way we’re capable of.”

When Reich was asked about potential changes to the offense on Monday, he said the goal going forward would be to emphasize the team’s best playmakers more.

“Simplify the scheme,” Reich said. “Think players, not plays.”

Hines is one of those players.

He needs more plays.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts: Desperate for reliable targets, Nyheim Hines needs to play more