Insider: 10 thoughts on the Colts' 25-20 win over Raiders in Matt Ryan's return
LAS VEGAS - Ten thoughts on the Colts' 25-20 victory over the Raiders at Allegiant Stadium to improve to 4-5-1:
How it happened:Colts beat Raiders in Jeff Saturday's wild NFL coaching debut
- Jeff Saturday's debut as a head coach, or an NFL coach of any kind, was always going to be fascinating. The interest skyrocketed in warmups when it became clear that Matt Ryan would be starting over Sam Ehlinger. I sensed the franchise moving in this direction all week, as the commitments to Ehlinger from team owner Jim Irsay and Saturday lessened as time went on. Irsay was a driving force behind benching Ryan for the second-year, sixth-round pick in the first place, and it's taken evidence on the field, improved health from Ryan and now an outside voice that he trusts to talk him into reversing course. Ryan was fantastic with this opportunity, completing 21 of 28 passes for 222 yards, one touchdown, zero turnovers and a rating of 109.5. Oh, and he had a 39-yard scramble, the longest of his 15-year career. It all added up to his fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the season (including the Week 1 tie), which still leads the NFL.
- Frank Reich and Marcus Brady, unfortunately, became the sacrificial lambs of this latest spin of the never-ending quarterback carousel. There's a lot to unpack, and we'll get to as the season unfolds, but what this should scream is that Saturday has a level of control that no Colts coach has had in a good stretch of time. Good things can happen when you shower that belief on someone and he has the emotional intelligence to make the right call for his players, which is said to be Saturday's ethos in this role.
- What the decision to go back to Ryan should also make crystal clear is that the Colts are not and never were trying to tank the season. Some fans have called for that as they've grown weary with this team, hoping that it could lead to the next Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck, but that was never a realistic path if you really thought through the costs and potential outcomes. It also didn't interest Irsay, who is immensely proud that his franchise ranks in the top four in wins since 2000. Every move the Colts have made lately, from benching Ryan for Ehlinger to firing Reich for Saturday, has been in the effort to try to spark the team toward better competing for the AFC South. We can question the effectiveness of those decisions plenty, but the tanking move would be to keep playing the sixth-round quarterback.
- The other clear benefit of starting Ryan is getting receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell involved. It's been a tough couple of weeks for both. They were both crushed by the news and had to work overtime to catch up with a quarterback neither had really ever played with, in an offense that was moving from the quick game and timing throws to moving pockets and the quarterback run game. The volume lets these guys make plays with the ball, which Campbell did on screen plays with his 4.3-second 40-yard dash speed, and Pittman did with his running back-style, contact-absorbing catches across the middle. It also keeps them engaged and in the flow, which Pittman admitted has been a challenge for him the past couple of weeks. Campbell caught seven passes for 76 yards and a touchdown, including the go-ahead score; and Pittman had seven catches for 53 yards, and he made a gutsy play to make up for his fumble by recovering the ball to set up the go-ahead score. That's how you work through the challenges.
- One last point on the passing game before we move on: I don't want any of this to read as a slam on Sam Ehlinger. That kid has done nothing but give it his best since they drafted him in the sixth round last season out of Texas. His arm was always a project, as was his confidence and comfort in firing with it and doing so from the pocket at 6-foot-1. His work with passing guru Tom House in the offseason was immensely clear in the preseason, which allowed him to crack a depth chart that was settled with Ryan and Nick Foles. He never asked to be thrown into the fire seven weeks later, behind an underperforming offensive line, with coaches under scrutiny, only to lose his offensive coordinator and head coach in the next two weeks. He also told us in the preseason that he wasn't ready to start, when he said his goal was to sit and learn for three seasons and to spend two years rebuilding the arm. The hope has to be that he embodies everything we've heard about his mental makeup, because if the plan was to develop this young quarterback, the franchise has done everything in the past month to confuse him.
- Welcome back, Jonathan Taylor. We've waited all season to see the fresh, confident and fully unleashed version who could break a game open with a second-half run to the house, and it finally arrived right after the Colts went down 14-13 late in the third quarter. Taylor took a handoff and cut to the left sideline and turned on the jet pack to reach a speed of 20.6 miles per hour, per the NFL's NextGen stats, his fastest time of the season. The 66-yard touchdown run gave the Colts a lead and powered a day in which he finished with 22 carries for 147 yards and a touchdown. Taylor looks fresh after taking last week off to let the ankle heal, and the challenge is to consistently get him those edges and to keep the crowds of linemen away from his ligaments. Saturday's presence could help with that, but we'll need to see it against a better defense to be sure it's back. But this is a jolt.
- So, is the offense fixed now with Ryan and a new coach and play-caller? I wouldn't go there yet. The surprise of the moment worked heavily in the Colts' favor, as the Raiders prepared all week for a stylistically different player in Ehlinger, with a game plan they almost surely borrowed from Bill Belichick's last week, which is where the Raiders coaching staff originated from. The Raiders also came in ranked dead last in defensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders, and had nine sacks on the entire season, limiting the ability to hit the Colts where they are weakest. Credit Parks Frazier and Saturday for handling a difficult week well, but we need to see a lot more, starting with next week against an elite Eagles defense.
- I do think some things have changed for the better with the offense from early in the season: Campbell has a clear and defined role. Kylen Granson is a receiver almost exclusively, tapping into his best traits. Will Fries is the right guard ahead of Matt Pryor or Danny Pinter, strengthening the pass protection, particularly against the stunts that have wrecked the season so far. And Jonathan Taylor looks fresh, rather than the hobbled and limited version with the hurt ankle he's been in too many other moments. I'm still highly skeptical about the offensive line against a solid pass rush, and it'll need to be strong to keep Ryan playing this way.
- The Colts defense started strong but fell susceptible to the talents of Josh Jacobs and DaVante Adams and the unflappability of Derek Carr, which have been waiting to be unleashed together. The pass rush fell silent at the wrong time to let the Raiders get cooking late in the first half. On that front, Yannick Ngakoue has to bring more than he has on obvious passing downs, and the Colts could use a boost from Dayo Odeyingbo at some point as well, with Kwity Paye battling another ankle injury. Luckily for them, Stephon Gilmore is still a superstar cornerback who can handle a receiver like Adams with the game on the line, and he did it for a deflection in the end zone in the final minute for the third victory of the year that he's sealed this way.
- Saturday said he spent around 85% of his first week on the job working with the offense. He knows his limitations, and he also seems to know he's not here to fix what isn't broken. That allows Gus Bradley, John Fox and the rest of the Colts' defensive brain trust to keep chugging on that side of the ball, though it's a unit made up of human beings that aren't immune to the distractions the franchise keeps creating, either. But I think at this point, we know what the Colts defense is and isn't, and that's a unit you can win with but not often because of. Which is plenty good if the Colts can continue to play offense sensibly, if they can somewhat protect Ryan and if they can spring Taylor to do his thing in the open field. It worked against the league's worst defense today, but the blueprint has to carry over now.
Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.