Panthers at Colts: Areas of interest

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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – DECEMBER 16: Quarterback Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts walks off the field after the 34-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Mercedes Benz Superdome on December 16, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Carolina Panthers Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: FOX59.

Re-establish offensive identity:

The offense has lost its way. A good portion of the blame must be directed at Jacoby Brissett, who hasn’t been the same since he sprained the MCL in his left knee at Pittsburgh. Everybody insists – Brissett, Frank Reich, Nick Sirianni – the knee is fine. OK, but Brissett isn’t. He was a 64.8 percent passer with 14 TDs, 3 interceptions and a 99.7 rating prior to the injury. In his five games post-MCL, he’s completing 58.5 percent of his passes with 4 TDs, 3 interceptions and a 77.9 rating. Some of his misses at New Orleans were egregious.

Brissett’s struggles have had a trickle-down effect. The area most impacted: the run game. Lack of offensive efficiency and continuity has resulted in less time of possession, fewer overall plays and an inability to find rhythm in the run game. The Colts have averaged 3.1 yards per attempt and 4.7 yards per game over the last three games, and have failed to reach the 100-yard mark during that stretch.

The foundation of Reich’s offense is a reliable running game complementing an efficient passing attack. They go hand in hand but are doing absolutely nothing to help each other.

Perhaps the Panthers can offer a helping hand. Their run defense ranks 30th in yards per game (140.2) and 32nd in yards per attempt (a ridiculous 5.2). It’s 27th in first downs allowed (21.8) and 20th in third-down efficiency (40.4 percent).

If Indy’s offensive struggles continue, then there’s really a cause for concern.

Mack attack:

The offensive funk has rendered Marlon Mack a non-factor since he’s returned from a broken right hand. His totals against the Bucs and Saints: 24 carries, 57 yards, 2.4 yards per attempt. It’s amazing he’s still the NFL’s 13th-ranked rusher with 919 yards.

One of the consolation prizes for an otherwise disappointing year would be getting Mack his first 1,000-yard season. Barring injury, that should happen. It should happen Sunday against the Panthers’ leaky run defense. Using our Ball State math background, Mack needs 81 yards. Nine different backs have hit that total against Carolina in 14 games, including four 100-plus yard rushers.

Trust us, the offensive line very much wants to get Mack to 1,000 yards.

If/when he gets there, he joins Frank Gore and Joseph Addai as the only Colts to hit the 1,000-yard mark since Edgerrin James’ departure in 2005. Mack also would join a shortlist of Colts with at least one 1,000-yard season since the relocation in 1984: James, Gore, Addai, Dominic Rhodes, Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson.

Contain McCaffrey:

And good luck with that. Christian McCaffrey exemplifies the phase ‘Mighty Mite.’ He’s 5-11, 205, and he’s one of the NFL’s most versatile, productive players. He leads the league with 2,121 total yards from scrimmage, 436 more than Cleveland’s Nick Chubb. He’s on pace for 2,424 yards, which would be the third-most in NFL history. He’s third in the league in rushing (1,307 yards).

The obvious objective of the Colts’ defense? “Stop 22,’’ Darius Leonard said, over and over again.

That would be McCaffrey. Targeting him is one thing. Containing him is another, although the speed of Leonard and the Colts’ linebackers should prove beneficial.

What’s most impressive about McCaffrey is everyone knows the Panthers’ offensive flows through him, yet he still churns out the yards. His durability also is undeniable. His 265 rushes are fifth-most in the league and only Michael Thomas (133) and DeAndre Hopkins (99) have more receptions than McCaffrey (94).

A stat to watch next week when Carolina closes the season against New Orleans: McCaffrey could join Roger Craig (1985) and Marshall Faulk (1999) as the only players in NFL history with 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the season. He’s sitting with 814 receiving yards.

And an interesting note. Reich mentioned the Philadelphia Eagles were prepared to take McCaffrey with the 14th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft; Reich was the Eagles offensive coordinator. The Panthers beat them to it, snatching McCaffrey at No. 8.

Make Will Grier play QB:

Mired in a six-game losing streak behind rookie Kyle Allen, the Panthers have turned to another rookie Will Grier. The third-round draft pick makes his first appearance of the season.

Grier will be a welcome sight to the Colts’ defense after facing Jameis Winston and Drew Brees the last two weeks, and giving up 763 passing yards and eight TDs.

No one should be surprised if Panthers interim coach Perry Fewell tries to keep Grier out of harm’s way as much as possible by having him hand off to McCaffrey or use him on screens or dump-offs, and look to wideout D.J. Moore (86 catches, 1,174 yards, 4 TDs).

It’s incumbent upon defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to turn up the pressure on Grier. Somehow, someway. Carolina has allowed 51 sacks, tied with Tennessee for the most in the league.

And the winner is:

Colts 31, Panthers 17. We’re in the cosmetic phase of the season, when a couple of closing wins might make things appear better than they are. At the very least, the Colts should finish the season with a winning record at home (5-3).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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