Colts' Alec Pierce hoping to build momentum

INDIANAPOLIS -- Much of the recent conversation about Alec Pierce has been dominated by what he has not done, rather than what he has.

For the second-year Indianapolis Colts' wide receiver, that means there's been intense focus on his lack of significant production to date.

"People have kind of wrote him off," teammate and fellow receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said.

Pierce acknowledged as much, saying he's made a conscious effort to avoid social media, where unflattering takes about his play abound.

"I know it's out there," he said.

Now, on the heels of Pierce's first career 100-yard game in Sunday's pivotal win over the Tennessee Titans, the conversation has turned to something else Pierce has not done: Grumble about his inconsistent opportunities.

"It's definitely a little frustrating," said Pierce, who caught three passes for 100 yards in the win. "But I just understand that it's so much bigger than me, especially the stuff that I'm asked to do in this offense. It takes all the other 10 guys."

Pierce's early 36-yard touchdown and his game-changing 55-yard reception in overtime against Tennessee aren't his only notable achievements this season. The ability of the 2022 second-round pick to maintain perspective under difficult circumstances might be just as notable, as Pierce has displayed impressive maturity in the face of scrutiny.

The 53rd overall pick in 2022, Pierce was drafted to be a key weapon in the Colts' passing game. In reality, that has taken many forms for Pierce, who has been just as likely to be a downfield decoy or blocker as to be targeted with a pass attempt.

Pierce has 25 receptions for 391 yards and a touchdown in 2023. That gives him half as many receptions as rookie Josh Downs (51) and a mere fraction of Pittman's 87 catches.

Interestingly, Pierce has played extensively this season, on the field for 94% of the Colts' offensive snaps. That makes it even more perplexing that he's had games like last month's meeting with the New England Patriots, where he was targeted just once -- for a 21-yard reception. Pierce has five games this season in which he's had two or fewer targets.

For perspective, Pierce's targets-per-routes-run mark of 11.4% ranks 149th in the NFL. That effectively means Pierce has been targeted roughly 11 times for every 100 routes he's run. In 2023, his targets per game have actually decreased to 3.8 from 4.9 in 2022.

That kind of usage can't be merely attributed to performance. Instead, it's the product of numerous factors, Pierce said, including his specific role in the Colts' new offensive system, the types of coverages they've faced and the quarterback upheaval during his brief career.

And, yet, Pierce has kept his head about it all.

"He does a great job of just staying positive," quarterback Gardner Minshew said. "There's teams ... I've been in where that can get toxic really fast, because he hasn't been getting a ton of targets and he hadn't got a ton of opportunity. But he made the most of those [Sunday] and has maintained a positive attitude."

So, what's behind Pierce's odd utilization?

First, there's the reality that Pittman has been among the receivers in the NFL with the highest volume this season, leaving precious few opportunities for others. Pittman ranks third in the NFL in targets (126) and his target share of 31.3% of his team's targets ranks fifth league-wide.

Then there's the quarterback changes Pierce has dealt with. In 2022, the Colts started three different quarterbacks -- Matt Ryan, Sam Ehlinger and Nick Foles -- in a dysfunctional season that produced a wretched offense. The pass protection struggled consistently, meaning there were precious few opportunities to deliver the deep balls Pierce is known for.

This season, rookie Anthony Richardson has been limited mostly to the sideline because of a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery. Richardson and Pierce were seen as a good match because of Richardson's proficiency in throwing down the field.

With Minshew taking 79% of the Colts' offensive snaps so far, the offense has adapted to his strengths. That means quicker throws, with Minshew averaging 2.8 seconds to throw -- eighth quickest in the league. That has resulted in shorter routes being targeted, with Minshew's 6.7 yards per attempt the lowest in his five seasons. That's translated into more work for Pittman and Downs, who run a majority of the quicker routes in the system (though Pierce also is asked to do so at times).

Meanwhile, for Pierce to be targeted on deeper throws, a series of complicated variables must align.

"One, [the play] has got to get called, and two, the defensive coverage has to be right," he said. "It can't be cloud coverage, Cover 2 up top or something. Then, three, the protection's got to be there, and four, the throw's got to be there. It's a lot of things that all got to add up. That's why it's so special to be able to make a play."

So, for Pierce, there must be a focus on making his opportunities count. He's done that by averaging 15.6 yards per reception. That ranks 12th among qualifying receivers and gives defensive coordinators something to contemplate when devising defensive strategies against the Colts.

Those coaches understand that while Pierce's contributions have been sporadic, they have the potential to be significant -- as the Titans learned on Sunday.

"It's definitely frustrating, but he's always locked in and he's a really good teammate," Pittman said of Pierce. "He just wants to win, so he's going to do whatever it takes. [Sunday], it took him having a really big game. I'm just so proud."