INDIANAPOLIS – The strain is evident on T.Y. Hilton’s face.
The Indianapolis Colts star receiver never has missed so much of a season at any point in his football career. Not in high school. Not in college. Not in seven previous years in the NFL.
As his teammates began preparation Wednesday for Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hilton was back in the training room undergoing treatment for a calf injury that’s likely to keep him on the sideline for the sixth time this year.
“I’m still taking it day by day,” the four-time Pro Bowler said. “It’s up to the coach and the trainers. I’m still in the process of getting better.”
Hilton reported to training camp with high expectations, calling this the best roster he’d ever been a part of and looking forward to the season.
But that joy is fighting a losing battle for survival these days.
Three pass catchers have been shut down for the season in the past two weeks, and the hits keep coming.
All Hilton can do is watch from afar as he tries to find a way back on to the field. He hasn’t played since a Nov. 21 loss against the Houston Texans, during which he caught three passes for 18 yards but also had a pair of third-down drops he later said cost his team the game.
Hilton credits wide receivers coach Kevin Patullo with doing a good job of getting a young and inexperienced receiving corps ready each week. But it hasn’t been easy for him to watch from the sideline.
The Colts (6-6) are 1-4 without him in the lineup this season, and his absence has a tangible effect on the offense.
“It’s very difficult (to sit out) ’cause I know I can help this team,” Hilton said. “Just me not being out there, teams are starting to play different ways. They’re starting to blitz more. They’re starting to play a lot of man coverage, but we just gotta win our one-on-one matchups and that’ll loosen up the run game.”
The Buccaneers (5-7) have the second-best run defense in the league, surrendering an average of just 3.4 yards per carry. But Tampa Bay ranks 31st in passing yards allowed (3,382), 29th in touchdown passes allowed (27) and 18th in average yards per attempt (6.3).
Finding a way to exploit that weakness will be a critical factor for success in yet another must-win game.
In all likelihood, Indianapolis will have to find a way to do it without Hilton again. Though the 30-year-old said season-ending injured injured reserve is not yet on the table, he made it clear there are no guarantees he’ll play during the regular season’s final month.
“I’m doing everything I can to get back out there,” Hilton said. “If I can, I can. If I can’t, then I’m gonna have to shut it down. But I’m doing everything I can.”
Hilton wasn’t the only Colt to sit out Wednesday’s practice. As the team prepares for Bruce Arians’ high-octane vertical passing attack, cornerback Kenny Moore II (ankle) also did not participate.
Safety Clayton Geathers (rest), safety Malik Hooker (knee), running back Marlon Mack (hand) and kicker Adam Vinatieri (knee) were limited participants.
Tight end Mo Alie-Cox (thumb) and wide receiver Parris Campbell (hand) practiced in full. That’s an encouraging sign for Campbell, who has missed the past four games after fracturing his hand Nov. 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With Vinatieri limited, Indianapolis claimed former Illinois kicker Chase McLaughlin off waivers from the San Francisco 49ers.
The undrafted rookie originally signed with the Buffalo Bills in May and was waived at the end of the preseason. He spent Week 1 of the regular season on the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad and then was signed by the Los Angeles Chargers for the next four weeks.
San Francisco picked McLaughlin up Nov. 7, and he appeared in three games for the 49ers. He is 13-for-17 on field goals in seven games this season and has made all 15 of his extra points.
McLaughlin was a 74.6 percent kicker (44-of-59) at Illinois and holds the school record with five field goals of 50 yards or more.
Tight end Matt Lengel was waived to make room on the active roster. Lengel signed as a free agent Nov. 25 and started last week’s loss against the Tennessee Titans.