T.Y. Hilton knows this routine. He went through it last year.
“Our main thing is don’t try to replace him,” Hilton said Thursday of Wayne, who a day later was officially ruled out for Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh with a sore elbow. “Ain’t no replacing (No.) 87.”
Hilton emerged as the Colts’ No. 1 receiver in 2013 after Wayne was lost in the seventh game to a season-ending knee injury. While the 35-year-old Wayne has made an impressive comeback and the Colts have added veteran Hakeem Nicks and rookie Donte Moncrief, Hilton is still playing the best.
The 5-9, 178-pound Hilton has been nicknamed “Ghost” because he can be as elusive as he is fast, and perhaps more importantly, often impossible to find and cover. And he evidently likes the nickname — he used it with a hashtag on Twitter.
The NFL’s No. 1 passing offense is built around third-year quarterback Andrew Luck, who has completed at least nine passes to nine different options. Hilton’s contributions can’t be defined strictly by his team-high 47 catches for 711 yards.
He’s the big-play threat. But the Colts move him around all over the field, which means he’ll catch his share of crossing routes and timing patterns to keep the first-down markers shuffling ahead.
Seven times, he’s caught passes of 33-plus yards this season. Opponents know who he is, which means double teams and a lot of safety help. His lone score, a 33-yard touchdown at Houston, came against a double team. He ran away from one defender and out-jumped another in the end zone.
Sure, the third-year pro will get his share of targets without Wayne. But expect the Colts to also utilize Nicks, who has been waiting for a chance to make a splash in his first season since coming over from the New York Giants.
“I knew the situation coming into it, which I knew I had to have plenty of patience, but we’re winning and that’s the most important thing,” Nicks said Friday. “As long as we keep getting the W’s, everybody’s happy.”
The Colts (5-2) have won five consecutive games entering their clash with the Steelers (4-3), who are coming off a 30-23 home victory over Houston on Monday night.
Nicks, a sixth-year pro, and Hilton speak the same language when asked about their approach to each game.
“You just let the game come to you,” Nicks said.
That’s basically the same words Hilton uses when asked about his success.
“I’m letting things come to me,” Hilton said.
The experience of last season should benefit No. 13 for however long Wayne is sidelined.
“When he went down, I had to step up another level,” he said. “My main thing was don’t try to replace him because there ain’t no replacing him. Just go out there and play and do the things I’m able to do.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.