INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
*Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.
*Spread: Colts by 2½.
*History lesson, Part I: We’ll keep this brief because the history is brief. The Panthers lead the overall series 5-2. It began in 1995 when they joined the NFL as an expansion team. The Panthers won the first meeting 13-10 in ’95 on the strength of John Kasay’s late 38-yard field goal and a defense that knocked Jim Harbaugh out of the game with six sacks.
Interesting side note: Frank Reich started the first three games in Carolina’s history before being replaced by first-round draft pick Kerry Collins.
The Colts won the most recent meeting in 2018 (38-8) as Nyheim Hines set franchise records with 195 yards and touchdowns of 84 and 71 yards on three punt returns.
*History lesson, Part II: The Colts face one of their former head coaches for just the fourth time since 1984. Reich compiled a 41-35-1 record from 2018 until being fired midway through 2022.
They previously faced Ted Marchibroda (twice) and Jim Caldwell.
*Tighten up on D: The Colts feature the only offense that’s scored at least 20 points in every game. That’s impressive.
But they’re dragging around the only defense that’s yielded at least 37 points in three consecutive games, all losses obviously. That’s unacceptable.
The Panthers and Washington have allowed at least 37 three times this season, but can’t match the Colts’ dubious three-peat: 37 at Jacksonville, 39 versus Cleveland and 38 last Sunday against New Orleans.
A disappearing pass rush has been a contributing factor, but the flashpoint has been a grab-bag approach for the No. 3 cornerback behind Kenny Moore II and rookie Jaylon Jones. Rookie JuJu Brents’ quad injury against the Browns initiated a ‘Who’s next? scramble.
The Colts turned to Darrell Baker Jr. to finish against Cleveland, and that didn’t work. Ditto, when they decided to find out whether Tony Brown might be a better option against the Saints. He wasn’t.
Shane Steichen wouldn’t tip his hand on which corner is No. 3 against Carolina.
“If I tell you,’’ he smiled, “I’m telling the other team.’’
It’s highly doubtful Brown is back out there. Maybe it’s Baker. Or maybe Bradley and defensive backs coach Ron Milus opt to leave Moore outside with Jones in the base and tinker with the nickel. That might mean moving Julian Blackmon or Nick Cross from safety to nickel.
One aspect working in the Colts’ favor as they deal with their cornerback issues: the Panthers don’t pose the diverse passing threat as previous opponents. Adam Thielen is tied-No. 3 with 57 receptions, No. 7 with 581 yards tied-No. 4 with four touchdowns. No other player has more than 19 receptions (rookie Jonathan Mingo).
*Rookie QB: The much-anticipated matchup of rookie QBs – No. 4 pick Anthony Richardson vs. No. 1 pick Bryce Young – was snuffed out when Richardson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in week 5 against Tennessee.
So, the spotlight focuses on Young.
General manager Chris Ballard and coach Shane Steichen thoroughly evaluated all of the top quarterbacks in the April draft before coming away with Richardson.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for Bryce,’’ Steichen said. “Very bright, intelligent football player. He gets the ball out of his hands really quick. The way he is able to process information when we met with him was impressive.
“He’s doing some good things right now and I think he’s going to have a heck of a career.’’
But it’s been a lackluster start for Young. He earned his first career win in Carolina’s first victory of the season last week against Houston and No. 2 pick C.J. Stroud. It was without question his best outing as a rookie: 22-of-31, 235 yards, one touchdown, a 103.6 rating. But Young is No. 21 in completion percentage (64.3), No. 23 in passer rating (82.3) and No. 32 in yards per attempt (5.64). He’s been sacked 22 times with seven interceptions and five TDs in his six starts.
The Panthers’ pass game ranks No. 24 in yards per game (194.3) and No. 32 in yards per pass play (5.0). QBs are averaging just 9.1 yards per completion.
The most effective approach against a rookie quarterback is to get his face early and stay there. Speed up his internal clock.
Here’s where we repeat the Colts’ pass rush has been relatively quiet during their three-game losing streak: 6 total sacks and 9 QB hits. The defense generated 15 sacks in the first five games.
Kwity Paye, Dayo Odeyingbo and/or Samson Ebukam need to step up and assist DeForest Buckner.
*More of JT?: This needs to be one of those strength vs. weakness games. The Colts’ strength is the Jonathan Taylor-Zack Moss tandem. The Panthers’ weakness is dealing with the run. The Colts’ run game ranks No. 9 in yards per game (129.0), and No. 6 in yards per attempt (4.5). The Panthers’ run defense is No. 29 (139.4) and No. 28 (4.7), respectively.
Moss is the NFL’s No. 2 rusher with a career-best 589 yards and is dealing with a sore heel. He didn’t practice Friday but has no game-day injury designation.
However Steichen and running backs coach DeAndre Smith spread the rushing attempts, they need to make liberal use of Taylor and Moss. Taylor is coming off a season-high 95 yards on 12 carries even though he had just one carry for 1 yard in the second half against the Saints.
The more the Colts run and are successful at it, the less they’ll depend on Gardner Minshew II. There’s a large enough sample size to put stock in Minshew’s 1-10 record as a starter when he attempts at least 40 passes. The only exception was Indy’s 22-19 overtime win in week 3 at Baltimore when Matt Gay converted five field goals, including an NFL-record four 50-plus-yarders.
*Line dance: It’s possible the Colts must turn to yet another offensive tackle. Right tackle Braden Smith will miss a fourth game with hip and wrist injuries and rookie backup Blake Freeland is questionable with a back injury that cropped up Thursday and kept him out of Friday’s practice.
If Freeland is out, next in line probably is Arlington Hambright. He played some left tackle during training camp but has yet to step on the field for a regular-season snap. Hambright’s NFL resume consists of nine games and one start for the Chicago Bears in 2020.
*And the winner is: Colts 24, Panthers 16. The Colts wasted opportunities against the Browns and Saints to give themselves direction. Now, the 1-win Panthers offer an ideal shot at ending their three-game losing streak. For whatever reason, the Colts have been better on the road, going 2-1 away from home.
They’d better be 3-1 on the road and 4-5 overall Sunday night.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.