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T.Y. Hilton living up to 'Ghost' nickname as defenses can't find him

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Start Hilton vs. Cowboys? (1:25)

Stephania Bell gives her level of concern over T.Y. Hilton missing practice on Wednesday and Mike Clay discusses the wideout's matchup against Dallas. (1:25)

INDIANAPOLIS -- For Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich, it was a matter of getting used to how T.Y. Hilton runs his routes, and the receiver had to get used to his new coach's offensive system.

There were some stretches earlier in the season when Hilton, Andrew Luck's primary target in their seven seasons together, was barely a blip in the offense. Hilton has found his comfort zone at the right time as the Colts are at the point of the season where they can't afford much slippage.

Hilton, known as "The Ghost," has arguably been one of the NFL's best receivers over the past four games, averaging eight catches and 139 yards over that span. His 556 total receiving yards is first in the NFL in that four-game stretch and his 33 receptions are second.

"I probably fell into this trap when I first got here as well -- that you think T.Y. is the speed guy," Reich said. "He's the guy that can get over the top, and what you learn after being around him is this guy is an elite route runner. I mean, he's an elite route runner. He has instincts and Andrew told me that right from the start. 'Frank, he does some unorthodox things in his route running, but I'm just telling you you're going to learn to trust him like I've learned to trust him. He has this unique ability to understand leverage and spacing.' This was Andrew speaking, 'I've just learned to trust him, I have a feel for him and you are going to see it.' And he was exactly right."

Hilton is peaking at the right time because the Colts (7-6) are right in the mix of things for the final playoff spot in the AFC. However, he's dealing with an injured ankle and is listed as questionable after not practicing all week for Sunday's game (1 p.m. ET, Fox) against Dallas (8-5). The Colts will need him against a Cowboys defense that's the ninth-stingiest in the NFL when it comes to defending the pass.

Hilton is only ninth in yards per game (89.6) and 12th in yards per catch (15.9) this season. Part of that is because Reich's offense is at its best when the ball is being spread around and Luck is able to find the obvious mismatches. The Houston Texans' defense was the mismatch last weekend when Hilton went off for 199 yards on nine catches. The same could be said for the Miami Dolphins (seven catches for 125 yards) and the Tennessee Titans (nine catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns) in three of the past four games.

"We needed it," Luck said after the Houston game. "T.Y. does some things very special. He does some things that not many other people can do. So we saw some opportunities through film that we thought we could take advantage of. Once we got that first one, it was like, 'OK, yeah, here we go, let's get it.' When T.Y.'s in the zone, he's in the zone, man. It's fun to play with him. It's an honor to play with him, and I sincerely mean that."

Hilton's big-play ability causes a trickle-down effect for the offense. Defenses are forced to respect the Colts' deep ball because of Hilton, which in turn helps the running game and leaves the middle of the field open for the tight ends. This isn't all about the vertical game with Hilton, though. Reich has used him on crossing routes, quick screens while lining him up in the slot and out wide. The goal is to keep the defense guessing about what's coming next from Hilton.

"We know he is our best playmaker, we know he is one of the better players in the league at his position and one of the better playmakers in the league at any position," offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. "So it is always been in mind to get him the football ... We move T.Y. around a lot just to get him the football, and I know that's hard for defenses to account for."

Hilton's name isn't often brought up in discussions of the top playmakers at receiver. That honor usually goes to the likes of Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, Atlanta's Julio Jones and Houston's DeAndre Hopkins.

Does Hilton feel like he's being slighted?

"I've been an underdog my whole life," he said. "It's nothing new to me. All you have to do is look at the numbers. They're never going to lie."

Tight end Eric Ebron quickly pointed out that Hilton "doesn't need that kind attention."

"He wants to go out there and do his thing, stay to himself," Ebron said. "Have fun with the people he's sharing that moment with. He doesn't have to get in the limelight and be talked about every Tuesday, every Wednesday."