1. Jacob Eason was decisive and let it rip.
Jacob Eason and Parris Campbell talked about it on the sideline — hey, if you're singled up in the slot and Carolina's linebackers push over, that means the defense will roll to a single-high safety, and I'm going to get you the ball.
That's exactly the pre-snap look Eason and Campbell got with 4:40 left in the first quarter, so Campbell knew the ball was coming to him before Eason even took the snap. And Eason, with good protection from his offensive line, fired a perfectly-weighed deep ball to Campbell for a 37-yard gain.
That was one of the big-time throws coach Frank Reich talked about after the game. Another: Midway through the second quarter, Eason fired a rocket on an in-cut to Dezmon Patmon, picking up 26 yards on second and 16.
"He just ripped that thing," Reich said. "It was a laser."
And then, to spark what Reich called a "clinic reel" two-minute drive, Eason trusted Mike Strachan to come down with a 50/50 ball — which, as Eason put it, isn't really a 50/50 ball when it's going toward the 6-foot-5 rookie receiver.
"For a split second, you can see the leverage he has on the corner, and you know his athletic ability so give him a shot," Eason said. "It's kind of one of those 50/50 back-shoulder balls and odds are Mike's going to win those."
Those three passes — putting touch on a deep ball or using his five-star arm strength when needed, and trusting his receiver to go up and get it — were highlights, certainly. But Reich was also pleased with how Eason processed things across the two quarters of his NFL debut and got to his progressions on time, leading him to complete 15 of 21 passes for 183 yards.
"We're always working on having the right timing, but like you said, speeding it up and getting it to the right timing with the play is important. I think Jacob has done well there, Reich said. "There are times where it needs to be better, I think you're seeing that right at times, but I think he's making good progress, he's very coachable and I think he's getting better each day and each week."
2. Sam Ehlinger rebounded well from an early interception.
Facing a third and five on his first drive, Ehlinger tried to guide a pass to tight end Kylen Granson, which was intercepted by Panthers safety Kenny Robinson.
"I just tried to aim it instead of letting it rip," Ehlinger said. "I tried to be too cute with it and I have to let it rip on the field."
Ehlinger, though, did not let that mistake spiral into the rest of his afternoon. He wound up completing 10 of 15 passes for 155 yards and rushed for 35 yards on five true rushing attempts.
And those stats don't tell the whole story — Ehlinger led consecutive game-tying and then game-winning drives which featured him hitting deep shots to receivers Tyler Vaughns and Tarik Black. He also used his mobility to convert three first downs on the game-winning drive, and punched in the game-tying two-point conversion with his legs, too.
"Sam bounced back," Reich said. "That's the kind of thing we want to see from our quarterbacks — mental toughness, to be able to have a glitch and be able to come back and play good football."
3. The wide receiver room is incredibly competitive.
When general manager Chris Ballard sat down with the media before training camp started three weeks ago, he was asked about which positions might have strong competition for roster spots.
"There will be some interesting battles at wideout, more than I think people realize," Ballard said. "We have some good young players."
We've seen what Ballard was talking about throughout training camp, but it showed up in almost an even bigger way on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Strachan had three catches on five targets for 57 yards, with a long of 32. Black had three catches on four targets for 67 yards, with a long of 47. Patmon had five catches on six targets for 49 yards, with a long of 26. Vaughns had three catches on three targets for 46 yards, with a long of 25. Quartney Davis had two catches on two targets, with a long of 15.
The Colts have an established core of receivers in T.Y. Hilton, Zach Pascal and Michael Pittman Jr. (none of whom played Sunday), with Campbell's flash play Sunday a reminder he's in that group, too. Behind those guys, though, is some strong, deep competition — which we saw play out against the Panthers.
"You look across the league and they always rank the receivers and stuff like that. We see that and it doesn't go unnoticed," Campbell said. "We definitely feel like we're slept on. But we know we got the guys in that room to make the plays."
But no one should be sleeping on the Colts' receiver room. Especially not after Sunday's game.
"We're talented. That's a talented, talented group," Reich said. "I think everybody put that on display today."
4. Even with plenty of starters sitting out, the Colts' defensive identity shined.
These guys did not play on Sunday: DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart, Kwity Paye, Tyquan Lewis, Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, Xavier Rhodes, Kenny Moore II and Khari Willis. Julian Blackmon started but played only 10 snaps; Zaire Franklin started and played 12 snaps.
But one of the biggest things the Colts' defense did was keep the same attitude and intensity established by its veteran starters no matter who was on the field. Case in point: The Colts had three sudden change situations off a lost fumble, an interception and a muffed punt, and one drive that started in their own territory after a turnover on downs.
On those four drives, the Colts' defense allowed just 3.3 yards per play and three field goals.
"I think it was good how we kept responding, especially the sudden changes – it's something we preach about a lot, always stay ready," Franklin said. "For the most part I think we played well. Of course, there are obviously things that we want to work on and be better at. I think it was definitely a good start."
The standard set by the Colts' defense is to thrive in those sudden change situations, especially when backed up deep in their own territory. And that standard did not waver on Sunday.
"I would say a majority of it is a mentality and just an attitude that you take about it," Franklin said. "Like, 'Okay, alright our offense made a mistake, but it's our time now to make sure that we hold them to either three or no points. I think that's something that we take personal. That's something we pride ourselves in and like I said, it was at least a good showing today."
5. Quick thoughts on snap counts.
- Eason and Ehlinger wound up having an even split of snaps — 39 apiece.
- RB Marlon Mack played 13 snaps. He broke off a nine-yard run on one of his four carries and, like Campbell (who played 10 snaps), it was good to see them both healthy and making plays.
- The snap breakdown at center: Joey Hunt (33), Chris Reed (23), Will Fries (22). Hunt has experience playing center in the NFL; Reed has experience in the NFL but it was his first game playing center; Fries played tackle and guard at Penn State, so outside of practice last week, he did not have experience there.
- Snap count leaders on offense: OL Carter O'Donnell (62), OL Will Holden (62), OL Sam Tevi (61), Fries (55), Patmon (52).
- Snap count leaders on defense: LB Malik Jefferson (51), CB Isaiah Rodgers (49), DL Isaac Rochell (44), LB Matthew Adams (44), DL Andrew Brown (39)
- Snap count leaders on special teams: Jefferson (18), LB Isaiah Kaufusi (16), DL Kameron Cline (13), S Sean Davis (13), S Shawn Davis (13)