INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Pittman Jr. turned the corner with purpose on his first NFL carry Thursday night.
As the Indianapolis Colts rookie broke into the open field, it briefly appeared he’d also pick up his first career touchdown. Instead, he had to settle for a 21-yard gain to the Tennessee Titans’ 2-yard line.
Running back Nyheim Hines scored two snaps later, and the Colts never trailed again in a crucial 34-17 victory.
Though Pittman is a wide receiver, perhaps his rushing ability comes naturally. His father was an NFL running back for 11 seasons and won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I just always watched him run, and he ran hard,” Pittman said. “So I was just trying to — just like trying to push and pull and do whatever I could to get a yard.”
The elder Pittman would be proud.
His son’s breakout game came with ample praise for his aggressive play.
Pittman Jr. finished with seven catches for a career-high 101 yards, including a 40-yard catch-and-run that helped Indianapolis put the game away in the fourth quarter. The receiver’s running ability showcased his long strides and somewhat deceptive speed, but it also highlighted his violent tendencies.
“He’s fearless in every way, but when the ball is in his hands, he wants to hurt somebody,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “He runs very aggressively. … That wasn’t possession type stuff. That was big-play receiver stuff, and we need to see more of that.”
Indianapolis has had its fair share of promising performances through the first nine weeks of the season but very little consistency.
Tight end Mo Alie-Cox hasn’t had more than three catches and 50 yards in a game since a five-catch, 111-yard breakout against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 20. Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor had 26 carries for 101 yards in that same contest but hasn’t had more than 17 carries and 68 yards since. And Marcus Johnson has just four catches for 53 yards in the three weeks since a five-catch, 108-yard outing against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Colts will point to those numbers as evidence of a strength. Seven players have at least 200 receiving yards, and it’s difficult for defenses to guess who might be the next to have a big game.
But the stats also speak to the lack of a go-to guy. When time’s running out and Indianapolis absolutely needs to make a play, it’s unclear who the team should turn to.
There’s hope Pittman soon will become that man, and his play in the past two weeks has been encouraging. The Titans game was the second time he’d set a career high in the same week, having recorded four catches for 56 yards against the Baltimore Ravens four days earlier.
It’s a sign the 23-year-old is beginning to settle in after a chaotic offseason, a shortened preseason and a bout with compartment leg syndrome that cost him five weeks and four games.
“He had a really good training camp and was really starting – I thought – to hit a stride and had the unfortunate injury,” Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Then, since he’s been back up and on the practice field and in these games each week, he’s really improved. The biggest thing that stood out to me the other night was his explosiveness.”
The Colts have been largely missing that big-play element. There have been flashes, but far too often the offense has had to take the long way to the end zone – chewing up yardage in smaller bites and battling to sustain drives.
Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni saw unique ability in Pittman at Southern California. At 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, he has the footwork of a smaller, more elusive receiver combined with the power of his frame.
It resulted in a Hall of Fame comparison.
“Larry Fitzgerald has this ability to catch the football and just not be denied,” Sirianni said. “There were some times in our draft meetings that we said that about Michael. Like he’s a big man. He’s hard to take down. Sometimes you think of a guy who is really good after the catch in terms of he makes you miss and he’s killing you with speed.
“Michael just has a different style about him, right? He’s more of a violent runner and uses his speed, and when he gets going, he’s a big body.”
Indianapolis made a concerted effort to get the ball into Pittman’s hands at Tennessee, and they see the rookie as a big factor in the offense moving forward.
The receiver believes there’s no coincidence he’s on the rise. He admitted the injury impacted him on and off the field, but he’s been able to put it behind him in recent weeks.
Wednesday from a health standpoint was not encouraging with two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers set to visit Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday.
Cornerback Kenny Moore II (ribs) and safety Khari Willis (ribs) were among three players sitting out practice because of injury. Tight end Jack Doyle also did not participate as he remains in the concussion protocol.
Alie-Cox (knee), safety Julian Blackmon (pelvis/knee) and defensive end Kemoko Turay (ankle) were limited.