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 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.
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."
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.
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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Steve Reed, The Associated Press