INDIANAPOLIS – What. A. Week.
In a week unlike any other you’ll see in the NFL, Jeff Saturday’s Colts beat the Raiders on Sunday evening, 25-20.
Here is what was learned from the Colts (4-5-1) road victory:
FIVE THINGS LEARNED
1. Better Coached Team: The Colts won this game largely because they were the better coached team. Jeff Saturday’s bunch was more disciplined throughout and Josh McDaniels’ crew showed why they’ve lost 6 one-possession games this season, in blowing another 4th-quarter lead. The Colts won the penalty game (4 for 25 yards compared to 10 for 74 yards) and just looked like a far more cohesive group than the Raiders. With the obvious caveat of the Colts opponent being not very good on Sunday, Jeff Saturday’s Colts also achieved some things the team had not really sniffed this season, especially early in games. After an opening-series 3-and-out, the Colts scored on 3 of their next 4 drives, with a Keke Coutee fumble halting what would have been another scoring drive. They had a halftime lead for the first time since Christmas. They had a lead entering the 4th quarter for the first time this season. Sure, you had some first-half penalties along the offensive line, and not calling a timeout late in the game could have been a bigger issue had the Raiders scored at the end, but Saturday handled many of his other duties quite well—good time management late in the first half, getting the challenge flag out on time for a key overturn, and thriving in the leader/CEO type role that had been missing in Indy. Pre-game, I pointed out two things I wanted to see from Saturday’s Colts: better offensive line communication and a sense of urgency to start a game. Check. And check. Looking ahead now, was this that interim jolt we’ve seen before in the NFL, coupled by playing a dysfunctional opponent? Were these two non-playoff teams facing off, and one just proving to be less broken than the other? With the Eagles, Cowboys and Vikings waiting in the Colts next 4 game, we will get truer evaluations on the Colts second half of the season. But on this Sunday afternoon, in a week unlike any you’ll see in the NFL, Saturday guided the Colts to a win. And that should be celebrated, even if it’s fair to have future doubts.
2. Parks Frazier Puts Offense In Winning Position: Honestly, of the Jeff Saturday/Parks Frazier/Matt Ryan trio, I was most impressed with the 30-year old play caller. Again, like we said above, the quality of the opponent must be pointed out (the Raiders are particularly bad on defense, and in the pass rush department, this season). Frazier simplified the play book, committed to helping out more in pass protection, got Matt Ryan to deliver the ball in a quicker rhythm, provide some run after catch chances, and then dialed up a home run by Jonathan Taylor, with the Raiders defense cracking. Frazier doesn’t deserve blame for a big fumble by Keke Coutee or Ryan taking an inexcusable sack on a 3rd-and-1. If the Colts would have scored on those two scoring opportunity drives, that would have been scores on 7 of 10 (real_ drives on Sunday. The Colts eclipsed the 20-point mark for just the second time this season. On the Ryan front, when the offensive line keeps the pressure quiet like they did on Sunday, he gives this team the best chance to win right now. But having the offensive line win up front like that, and then Taylor looking like his old home run self, certainly helped. Still, Frazier is a guy who had never called plays, at any level, before Sunday. And his offense was steady throughout, and didn’t flinch when game pressure rose. Also, if Jeff Saturday didn’t make the final call to Matt Ryan until after Friday’s last practice of the week, does this mean Frazier game-planned for Sam Ehlinger until the end of the week, before having to change things to a much-different style QB?
3. Stephon Gilmore Closes Again: Even though the Raiders had plenty, plenty of issues entering this one, they still have quite the skill duo in Josh Jacobs and Davante Adams. And the Colts were feeling that duo in the second half. Adams was smoking the Colts in the open field, with multiple guys whiffing to try and bring down the All-Pro. So, on the 4th-and-6 to decide the game, it was very wise by Gus Bradley to stick Stephon Gilmore on Adams, especially after failed attempts by others in the secondary. And just like the end of the Denver game, Gilmore delivered in the clutch, out on an island, with an all-out blitz coming for Derek Carr. Honestly, tons of credit needs to go back to the 3rd-down play, when Bobby Okereke punched the ball away from Raidres TE-Foster Moreau in what would have been the go-ahead touchdown. With the Colts pass rush far too quiet to close this game out, a Colts defense unable to get their hands on enough balls this season, found two huge plays to secure this road win. Chris Ballard has some roster construction questions that deserved to be asked, but his signing of Gilmore has lived up to the hype.
4. Offensive Line Steps Up: While Jeff Saturday’s early-week proclamation of Sam Ehlinger starting at QB didn’t play out, he did opt for youth on the offensive line, and the results were pretty solid. It was Bernhard Raimann at left tackle, and Will Fries at right guard on Sunday. The Colts had much better protection, against a Raiders defensive line with some names on it, but the worst sacking unit in the NFL this season. Ryan was hit one time in 28 pass attempts, with the Colts clearly committed to keeping more guys in for protection. Sunday was a reminder that so many of the Colts problems this season can be pointed back to the poor play of the offensive line. Like we saw in the 38-point outing against the Jaguars, when the offensive line has had its few moments of good football this season, the results have been positive. There was no doubting Jonathan Taylor’s health on his 66-yard home run in the third quarter. What beautiful blocking by the offensive line, with Braden Smith crashing down to open up a massive hole. The feeling was there that a Taylor homer was coming, given how the Colts were running it and the Raiders cracking defense, down so many key linebackers. This was Taylor’s first run of more than 30 yards all season long, and you saw his speed back at that full throttle level (similar to the New England clincher last year). While some other topics have dominated recent headlines, the inability to get Taylor going has obviously held the offense back. Remember, a huge reason the Colts drafted Taylor is because of his big-play ability. For an offense lacking in that area this season, not having those has only added to the offensive mess.
5. Who Knows With Jim Irsay? So, if Jim Irsay hadn’t mandated the benching of Matt Ryan a few weeks back, would Frank Reich still be here? Again, putting Ryan’s shoulder injury aside, Irsay called for Ehlinger to start at a point in the season many within the organization disagreed with such a move. The result certainly contributed to the firings of Marcus Brady and Reich. But with Jeff Saturday now in the building, Irsay let his head coach go back to the veteran QB, with a clear hope of wanting this interim decision to work out in the future. Saturday made the final call on putting Ryan back into the starting lineup on Friday afternoon, following the team’s last practice of the week. How Irsay has handled his franchise over the past month has been odd. Looking big picture for a second, how will all of this play out? At 4-5-1, playoffs for the Colts still are a long shot, especially with the Eagles, Cowboys, Vikings, Chargers and Giants remaining on the schedule, and the Titans moving to 6-3 on Sunday. But it is anyone’s guess as to how an emotionally charged Irsay will view the Saturday experiment, and the potential of Matt Ryan for another year? Honestly though, those future questions, no matter how important they are, can be put on hold for a few days. Draft order debate and that 2023 QB class can wait. In a week that went beyond chaos, the Colts banded together to get a win. And that should be celebrated.
-Injury Report: The following Colts were INACTIVE on Sunday: RB-Deon Jackson (knee), TE-Jelani Woods (shoulder), QB-Nick Foles, OL-Wesley French, WR-Mike Strachan, DT-Chris Williams, S-Trevor Denbow. These Colts got hurt on Sunday and did not return: DE-Kwity Paye (ankle).
–Key Stat: The Colts held a halftime lead on Sunday for the first time since last Christmas.
–What’s Next: The Colts (4-5-1) will return home next week to take on the undefeated Eagles at Lucas Oil Stadium. The game will kick at 1:00 PM on Sunday afternoon.