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Carolina Panthers

Carolina's lone touchdown drive involved some forgotten pieces

Miles Sanders

CHARLOTTE – On a night when rhythm and consistency weren't there for the Panthers' offense in a 27-13 loss to Indianapolis, one drive showed what they'd want it to look like more often.

Carolina scored its only touchdown on a 15-play, 77-yard drive that took off nearly 8 minutes after halftime, highlighting some core pieces they acquired this offseason, and the identity they hoped to establish but haven't.

It started with the run. It featured running back Miles Sanders, who bounced back Sunday after struggling through the early stretch of his tenure here. It featured smart decision-making from quarterback Bryce Young.

And that touchdown drive helped build into a part of the drive after it, when after a defensive stop, Young made the longest completion of his NFL career to tight end Hayden Hurst with a 48-yard pass on third-and-11. Sanders and Hurst were part of the offseason blueprint to insulate Young during his rookie season, through things have not gone according to plan.

Young would throw his second pick-six the play after on a night that was difficult for the rookie and the whole offense, but that out-of-halftime sequence showed some promise, even if the results are obviously not completely there yet.

"That's what we want to be," Sanders said. "We started out with the run game, getting those tough runs and getting first downs, and really just staying on the field and converting on third down. … That's the type of team we want to be, physically control the line of scrimmage."

Sanders ran three times for 21 yards and made two catches for 19 (combining for 40 yards all-purpose) in that series alone, converting three of the drive's first downs.

He said the trust he received from assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley, who he also worked with during his previous stop in Philadelphia, helped guide him through a more challenging stretch before Sunday.

"I was just happy to give the offense a spark in the second half," Sanders said. "Duce told me to go in, start it off, and (I was) just happy that he had the confidence in me to get the offense going."

Sanders averaged a season-best 6.5 yards per attempt (39 yards on six carries) against Indianapolis after rebounding from a difficult stretch to start the season and a hamstring injury that sidelined him for the Miami game.

In the interim, the Panthers have been riding the hot hand of running back Chuba Hubbard, who played his role in the touchdown drive (five carries for 15 yards) and finished the Colts game with a team-leading 16 carries for 58 yards.

Sanders said he was happy for Hubbard and third-string running back Raheem Blackshear and that the group works well as a unit together.

"I was playing nowhere near my best when the season started, then I had my injury, so they decided to go with Chuba," Sanders said. "He's been more consistent, and I respect that, and I'm happy for Chuba for balling out so far. And Raheem – I'm just happy all three of us are on the field now. That's all it is."

On top of Sanders' positive performance, Young completed 5-of-6 passes for 41 yards and a touchdown on that drive, including an 11-yard completion to tight end Tommy Tremble on fourth down that kept the scoring opportunity alive and the 5-yard touchdown to wide receiver DJ Chark Jr.

"We didn't really have penalties (on that drive), and everybody was efficient," Chark said. "We were physical running the ball. Bryce made good decisions passing the ball. If I'm not mistaken, we had a fourth-and-1 that we threw to Tommy. That was a big catch.

"I mean, people just made plays, and Bryce was doing well. … That's who we are, who we want to be. We just have to continue that and figure out a way to be more efficient with that."

Young connected with Tremble, Chark, Sanders, and wide receiver Adam Thielen in the series before finding Hurst in the next one.

And he knows that's what he will need in the second half of the season.

"We all feed off each other; everyone's important," Young said. "Miles, Hayden stepped up, made some really good plays. It's just making sure that all of us are at our best. So, for me, it was just trying to execute the plays that were called.

"And the couple positive plays they made, again, they're great players, and people around them, too, do a great job. People up front protecting and having lanes for Miles. Again, they're great players. … We're going to need everybody."

Of course, things are far from perfect in general.

Head coach Frank Reich mentioned how they showed bits of what they want their identity to be against the Colts, but they are in no way a finished product.

"Obviously, we're struggling to find our identity; there's no question about that," Reich said. "But it does start with running the football, and I thought we showed flashes of that tonight. But then we got to be when you can run the ball; you need to be able to get some play action shots down the field and get some chunk plays."

But how that touchdown drive looked is what they're aiming for, so they have the blueprint. They just have to keep it more consistent and fix mistakes, and they know that.

"With how the second half started, they gave me the first ball, and that's exactly how I picture it," Sanders said. "Just trying to create explosive plays in the run game, and that creates explosive plays down the field, too. We drove right down the field and scored. So every drive should look like that.

"But like I've said, penalties and little stuff like that are what's holding us back right now. And it's tough."

View all the action from the Panthers' game against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 9.

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