Frank Reich Sees Colts QBs Jacob Eason, Sam Ehlinger Play 'Winning Football' Against Panthers

Both Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger impressed in their NFL preseason debuts Sunday against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

INDIANAPOLIS — Jacob Eason had a "clinic reel" drive. Sam Ehlinger displayed mental toughness. 

And Colts coach Frank Reich came away from Sunday's 21-18 win over the Carolina Panthers feeling positively about what both quarterbacks did in their respective preseason debuts. 

"I thought both of them are probably going to grade out as playing winning football at the end of the day," Reich said. 

Eason completed 15 of 21 passes (71.4 percent) for 183 yards (8.7 yards/attempt) with no interceptions, no touchdowns and a passer rating of 97.9. Ehlinger completed 10 of 15 passes (66.7 percent) for 155 yards (10.3 yards/attempt) with one interception, no touchdowns, a passer rating of 72.9 and eight rushes for a team-high 30 yards.  

The stats don't tell the whole story, though.

Both quarterbacks made aggressive, decisive throws downfield, for one. 

Eason threw a perfectly-weighted deep ball to Parris Campbell for a 37-yard gain, sparked a two-minute touchdown drive with a 32-yard 50/50 ball to Mike Strachan and also added a 26-yard strike to Dezmon Patmon. 

"The in-cut to Dez, he just ripped that thing," Reich said. "It was a laser. That catches your eye. Those are big-time throws."

And Ehlinger sparked an 11-point fourth quarter surge with a 47-yard completion to Tarik Black, followed by a 25-yarder to Tyler Vaughns (both of which were spectacular catches by the undrafted rookie receivers). 

Beyond those big-time throws, there were two larger trends that stood out on Sunday. 

First: Both quarterbacks did not let turnovers derail their afternoons. Eason was strip-sacked late in the first quarter; Ehlinger's first drive ended with an interception. 

On Ehlinger's interception, he said he tried to aim his throw instead of letting it rip, which allowed safety Kenny Robinson to jump the route and pick it off. But he settled in after and showed the kind of moxie and "it" factor that's been a consistent presence at Grand Park over the last few weeks. 

"I think just staying in the moment, staying in the present and understanding the past doesn't affect the present or the future," Ehlinger said. "It's something that you definitely have to learn because obviously you don't want your first drive in a game to be an interception, but if you go in to that hole and you fall into that hole, then you are probably going to throw another one instead of responding the way you should.

And second: Both quarterbacks led impressive drives in big moments. 

Reich's initial plan was to take Eason out of Sunday's game some time in the second quarter, but he didn't want Ehlinger's first drive to be in a two-minute situation just before halftime. So Eason stayed in and put together an efficient and explosive drive, marching the Colts 75 yards in just six plays to get in the end zone for the first time. 

"The two minute drive was a clinic reel," Reich said. "He did a great job and he hit some really nice throws the whole first half. He had a couple lasers in there and really looked good."

Eason said those two-minute situations have been an emphasis in practices lately, so translating it into a game was an encouraging sign. 

"We had a team meeting and coach Reich was up there talking about focusing on an image, focusing on something and keeping it small. Nothing else really matters," Eason said. "My focus was one day at a time, one rep at a time, do my job, do my job consistently and not make the picture bigger than it has to be. Obviously there's a lot going on outside but I just wanted to focus on the little things and do my job. I thought today was an opportunity to go do that and yes there's a lot to look on tape and go back and clean up and improve before Minnesota Saturday. But I'm excited to get back on the practice field and attack it."

And Ehlinger led the Colts on consecutive scoring drives in the fourth quarter to win the game. He made plays with both his arm and his legs, including two scrambles to convert third downs and then another to punch in a two-point conversion. 

"We talked as an offense and said we have to find whatever it takes to win," Ehlinger said. "I got a little more comfortable there at the end and everybody did a great job from the o-line to the receivers, ran the ball well when we needed to. Everybody just kind of turned it on."

Reich emphasized he and the Colts are not in a rush to make a decision on if Eason or Ehlinger will earn a starting nod in the regular season if necessary — Carson Wentz will be two weeks out from his foot procedure on Monday, and can begin his rehab process this week — and re-iterated that the quarterbacks' roles will be flipped in Saturday's trip to Minneapolis to face the Vikings. Ehlinger will start next weekend's game and will probably play the whole first half, with Eason taking over after halftime, Reich said. 

There's still plenty of snaps in both practices and games for the Colts to evaluate both Eason and Ehlinger. But after Game 1, the returns on both were encouraging. 

"(I was) looking in their eye, feeling what they feel, and what I felt was good for both of them," Reich said. "You don't get that in practice. You get that in a game, and then you see how they respond. … And you see some of the big-time throws. They both made big-time throws. Big-time throws."

The Indianapolis Colts return to action as they host the Carolina Panthers for their first game of the preseason.

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