Insider: Jeff Saturday wins Colts coaching debut with quarterback Matt Ryan as starter

Joel A. Erickson
Indianapolis Star

LAS VEGAS, N.V. — Interim Colts coach Jeff Saturday got it done.

Facing off against a Raiders team that has arguably been even more disappointing than Indianapolis this season, Saturday made a massive change at the quarterback position, rode an offense that pounded on Las Vegas and held on late for a 25-20 win, giving Saturday a win in his debut as head coach.

Indianapolis (4-5-1) also kept its faint playoff hopes alive, all while simultaneously killing the hopes of Las Vegas coach Josh McDaniels, the coach who left the Colts at the altar all those years ago.

Matt Ryan brings efficiency back to the offense

The first big move of Saturday’s tenure was an enormous one, deciding to put veteran quarterback Matt Ryan back in the starting lineup.

And although Ryan did have one of the mistakes that plagued him through the first seven games of this season, taking an ugly sack deep in the red zone that ultimately led to a missed field goal, the 37-year-old was largely what he was expected to be at the beginning of the season, completing 21 of 28 passes for 222 yards, a touchdown, and simultaneously did something nobody expected him to do, ripping off a 39-yard run that was longer than any rushing play he’s had in a game.

More:How did Matt Ryan get loose for a 39-yard run? Twitter repsonds

One week after Jim Irsay’s Sam Ehlinger experiment went belly-up against the Patriots, Ryan showed why the offense has been able to move the ball under him, and most importantly, he was able to avoid the turnovers that cost the Colts so much at the beginning of the season in delivering his fifth fourth-quarter comebacker of the season.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 13: Matt Ryan #2 of the Indianapolis Colts and Parris Campbell #1 celebrate after a touchdown during the first quarter of the game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Stephon Gilmore comes up big again for the defense

When the Colts have everybody available on the defensive line, Indianapolis has been dominant at times, led by the twin towers tandem of DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart.

But when Kwity Paye, Tyquan Lewis or some combination of the two players have been out of the lineup, general manager Chris Ballard’s quixotic quest to find edge rushers has been put into stark focus, the way it was on Sunday against Las Vegas.

For a while, it allowed the Raiders to stay in the game, as Derek Carr kept feeding DaVante Adams to the tune of nine catches, 126 yards and a touchdown.

But with the game on the line, Carr tried to force the ball to Adams with Gilmore in coverage, and the Colts’ star kept Adams from making a play to give the Colts the win.

Nov 13, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Indianapolis Colts head coach Jeff Saturday reacts with offensive tackle Braden Smith (72) running back Jonathan Taylor (28) and running back Jordan Wilkins (29) following the touchdown scored by quarterback Matt Ryan (2) against the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half at Allegiant Stadium.

Jonathan Taylor finally got free

One year after taking the NFL by storm, the Colts’ best player has been through arguably the most difficult season of his career.

When he was healthy, Taylor was often forced to create his own yardage, frustrated behind a Colts offensive line that didn’t live up to its reputation through the first half of the season. Taylor looked unsure at times, unable to trust where the holes would open.

Then he sprained his ankle against Tennessee, the first time in Taylor’s career that he’s been handed the kind of injury that could keep him out of the lineup. Taylor missed two games, returned to the lineup in limited fashion, then twisted the ankle again, forcing him to sit out the game against the Patriots.

Because of all of that, Taylor headed into the final eight games of the season averaging just 4.3 yards per carry, his longest run just 27 yards. A back who’d been one of the best big-play stars in the NFL never got a chance to get out in the open.

Taylor’s ankle still isn’t 100 percent.

But he proved on Sunday that he can still take one to the house if he’s got enough room. Agile and running with excellent vision, Taylor ground out yards for most of the first three quarters, then suddenly saw the Black Sea part, crushed under blocks from Braden Smith and Will Fries.

Taylor didn’t let the opportunity go by, running away from two Raiders defenders for a 66-yard score and finishing with 147 yards on 22 carries.

More:Colts news: Jonathan Taylor breaks out with Colts longest play of season

Remixed Colts offensive line takes advantage of terrible Las Vegas front

Indianapolis carried over two key changes on the offensive line from last week’s ugly Patriots game, starting rookie Bernhard Raimann at left tackle and sticking with second-year player Will Fries, rather than embattled offensive lineman Matt Pryor.

The Colts also got the benefit of going against the ultimate get-right matchup, a Raiders front that has been superstar defensive end Maxx Crosby and almost nothing else this season. Las Vegas entered the game with a league-low nine sacks, six of which have come from Crosby, and a defense that overall ranked dead-last in the NFL in DVOA, Football Outsiders’ all-encompassing metric.

Indianapolis didn’t miss its opportunity.

Outside of one critical sack by Crosby that led to a missed field goal, Las Vegas put almost no pressure on Ryan, allowing the veteran to get the ball to his playmakers, complete 75% of his passes and operate without fear of getting drilled.

On a more encouraging level, the Colts offensive line opened holes consistently in the running game against a Raiders defense that has been good against opposing running attacks.