Colts have found their offense since firing Frank Reich. The defense has been a different issue

Colts have found their offense since firing Frank Reich. The defense has been a different issue

Carolina Panthers head coach Frank Reich watches from the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts were struggling mightily on offense last season when owner Jim Irsay decided to fire coach Frank Reich in the middle of his fifth season.

Offense hasn’t been a big issue for new Colts coach Shane Steichen.

Under Steichen, the Colts (3-4) have improved their scoring average by 8.6 points per game, rank sixth in the league at 25.6 points per game and are the only NFL team to score 20 or more points in all eight games this season.

The problem has been Indy’s defense allowing a league-high 28.8 points including 114 points over the last three games, the franchise’s highest three-week total since yielding 120 points in 2001.

On Sunday, the Colts’ defense will try to pull it together when they face Reich’s new team, the Carolina Panthers (1-6), who’ve had issues on offense all year long but are coming off their first win.

“It stings a lot when you lose three games, especially the way it’s been going,” Colts defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis said. “It does hurt. It’s basically a game every single day and you want to conquer that day and roll it over to Sunday in order to get wins and get things swinging back in the right direction.”

Reich said this week he has nothing but “positive emotions” when he thinks about his time in Indianapolis.

“There’s always a disappointment about moving on — just like anybody who moves on in a job — but a lot of great relationships,” he said. “But for me, this is very common in this league. I’ve been in this league for 30 years. Players and coaches, you move on. You have a new family, you love the people you just left, you respect them, you move on and you’re focused on the next chapter in your life and your career.”

Reich has immense respect for Steichen and is not surprised by his success. Reich worked alongside Steichen in Philadelphia during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run.

Things to watch on Sunday between the Colts and Panthers:

PACKING A PUNCH

Jonathan Taylor, the 2021 NFL rushing champ, and Zack Moss, the league’s No. 2 rusher, have given the Colts a strong one-two combination out of the backfield this season.

Over the past two weeks, against two top-10 defenses, they teamed up for 59 carries, 293 yards and two scores, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry. This week, they could see an even heavier workload against a Carolina defense that allows 4.69 yards per carry, especially Taylor, who has been working his way back steadily from an ankle injury that ended his season last December.

“He’s getting there, he’s almost there,” Steichen said, acknowledging that Taylor probably would be getting 20 carries per game if Moss hadn’t been so productive. “He hadn’t played a lot of football. Obviously now four weeks in, you can see he’s progressing every week. I think it’s great that we have two really good backs.”

BURNS STAYS IN CAROLINA

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer passed on trading his team’s best defensive player, Brian Burns, before Tuesday’s trade deadline amid speculation the team might look to add some draft picks. Nobody was happier about that than Reich, who called Burns “a leader in every way.”

However, the two-time Pro Bowl selection won’t be 100% on Sunday.

He’s been dealing with a painful elbow injury sustained last week during practice, which has made it difficult for him to wrap up on tackles. On several occasions, Burns could be seen grimacing in pain after contact.

“It was definitely a problem,” Burns said. “With time, it will get better. We’ll keep working on that, but it was a problem.”

GOING ONCE, GOING TWICE

Last week, the top two overall draft picks from April faced off and Carolina quarterback Bryce Young got his first career win over Houston’s C.J. Stroud. This week was supposed to be a matchup between the No. 1 and No. 4 overall picks, Young and Anthony Richardson.

Indianapolis Colts and former East Carolina quarterback Gardner Minshew (10) throws against the New Orleans Saints during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023 in Indianapolis.

But with Richardson out with a season-ending injury to his throwing shoulder, that faceoff has been put on hold, with Gardner Minshew getting the start for Indianapolis.

Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley likes what he’s seen so far from Young.

“He does do a good job picking up pressures, he makes sure that they’re not in a bad play,” Bradley said. “He has been pressured, but I think we just have to change it up some and make sure we don’t give him a lot of open windows. He’s the type of quarterback you’re going to see really get better.”

RELIABLE WEAPON

Eddy Pineiro has quietly developed into one of the best weapons in the league for Carolina. He has made 24 straight field goals at home, including a game winner as time expired to beat the Texans 15-13.

That came after Houston intentionally tried to distract Pineiro by repeatedly jumping offside.

“Those guys were like, ‘Oh you’re gonna miss it!,’” Pineiro said. “They’re just trying to get in your head and I just stayed focused, followed my technique and just did my normal prayer that I usually do before I kick, and that’s it.”

Since coming to Carolina, Pineiro has made 91.8% (45 of 49) of his field-goal attempts.

LEANING ON HUBBARD

The Panthers expected Miles Sanders to be their every-down back this season.

But Sanders has struggled with injuries and has fumbled twice leading to touchdowns, and has been replaced in the starting lineup by Chuba Hubbard. Hubbard is expected to get the bulk of carries against the Colts, with Sanders and Raheem Blackshear also getting some reps.

COLTS PLAYER TO WATCH: LB Shaquille Leonard. The three-time All-Pro appears to be rounding into midseason form after a slow start to this season. He’s averaging 8.3 tackles over the past three weeks, up from 5.3 over the previous four games. Leonard had a season-high 11 tackles against New Orleans, but has not yet produced the menacing playmaking presence so far.

PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Adam Thielen. The 33-year-old Thielen continues to be the star of the offense and is in the midst of a career-best season after coming over from Minnesota. Over the past six games, Thielen has 55 receptions for 569 yards and four touchdowns. He is clearly QB Bryce Young’s go-to receiver, particularly on third and fourth downs when the team needs a play. Thielen’s 19 third down catches are most in the NFL. Thielen has been targeted at least eight times in each of the past six games and has three different games with 11 receptions.

KEY MATCHUP: Colts RBs Jonathan Taylor and Zack Moss vs. Panthers run defense. Taylor, the 2021 NFL rushing champ, and Moss, the league’s second-leading rusher, are averaging a combined 4.7 yards per carry. That’s the same average the Panthers defense allows. And going run heavy against Carolina would serve two purposes — keeping the clock running and Indy’s defense off the field. Winning this matchup will be essential for the Panthers, who have allowed eight touchdowns on the ground the past three weeks.

KEY INJURIES: Indy’s biggest concerns are RT Braden Smith (hip, wrist), who has missed three straight games and rookie CB JuJu Brents (quad), whose absence the past two weeks was noticeable in the secondary. TE Kylen Granson still hasn’t cleared the concussion protocol and DT Eric Johnson II (ankle) sat out last week. Starting DT Grover Stewart also will miss his third game as part of a six-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancers. For the Panthers, DE Brian Burns is hampered by a elbow injury, but is expected to play. Burns said it is impacting his ability to wrap up. Carolina is expected to get S Vonn Bell back this week after he has missed the past two games.

SERIES NOTES: The previous time the two teams faced off in Charlotte was 2015 with the Panthers defeating the Colts 29-26 in overtime. The Panthers have defeated the Colts twice in overtime in the series.

STATS AND STUFF: Indy has lost three straight and four of its past five. … The Colts are the only NFL team to score 20 or more points in all seven games this season after averaging just 17 last season. … Indy’s defense has allowed at least 37 points each of the past three weeks and the 114 total points allowed is the franchise’s second-highest three-game total since 2001. … QB Gardner Minshew had one turnover last week after committing eight in his first two starts since taking over for injured rookie Anthony Richardson. … Taylor and Moss each produced runs of more than 40 yards last week against the Saints. … WR Michael Pittman Jr. needs 71 yards to surpass position coach, Reggie Wayne (3,109 yards), for fourth among Colts receivers in their first four seasons. He needs eight receptions to pass T.Y. Hilton (283) for second on the franchise list over the same time frame. … LB Zaire Franklin continues to lead the league in tackles (102) and is on pace to become the fourth player in league history with a 200-tackle season. Former Tampa Bay star Hardy Nickerson was the most recent to do it with a league-record 214 tackles in 1993. … Leonard, who missed most of last season, needs six tackles to get No. 600 in his sixth NFL season. … The Colts still lead the league in tackles for loss (51) and strip-sacks (six) this season. … Panthers head coach Frank Reich served as the head coach for the Indianapolis Colts from 2018-2022. He also coached in various roles for the Colts from 2006-2011. … The Panthers are coming off their first win of the season last week against the Texans. … QB Bryce Young has been sacked 22 times in his six starts, including six times last week by the Texans. Young had his two longest completions of the season last week against Houston of 40 and 31 yards. … WR Adam Thielen is fifth all time in NFL history in yards receiving for an undrafted player with 7,076. … LB Frankie Luvu was the NFC defensive player of the week after finishing with 12 tackles, two passes defended and a sack against the Texans. … The Panthers have 16 sacks and six takeaways this season. … K Eddy Pineiro has made 24 consecutive field goals at home, including a game-winner as time expired last Sunday to beat Houston.

FANTASY TIP: The Colts are giving up 123 yards per game on the ground and the Panthers will look to take advantage with Chuba Hubbard getting the bulk of the carries. Hubbard has replaced Miles Sanders in the starting lineup. The Panthers have yet to have a 100-yard rusher this season, but are expected to lean heavily on Hubbard.

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