After Jeff Saturday’s ‘storybook’ coaching debut, Colts’ offensive issues back in spotlight

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For at least one week, the Indianapolis Colts were riding high. Call it a honeymoon phase.

Interim coach Jeff Saturday and the franchise – after breaking the unwritten laws of climbing the coaching ranks in Saturday’s hiring – beat the Raiders on the road to end a three-game winning streak.

After a tumultuous season, with the firing of Frank Reich, the Colts saw reason for hope. Something to build on. The offensive line looked the best it had all season. Jonathan Taylor looked like himself. Matt Ryan, reinstated as the starting quarterback, led a game-winning drive. And it all came down to Saturday, who, despite his lack of coaching experience, brought undeniable juice and leadership at a difficult time.

“I’m not sure there’s a storybook ending better for the first game,” he said Saturday in Las Vegas.

But the fairy tale is over.

Instead? The reality that has defined the 2022 Colts.

As it has been most of the season, the offense faltered in Indianapolis’ 17-16 home loss to the Eagles on Sunday. The Colts blew a 10-point lead in the second half to fall to 4-6-1 on the season. They now have just an 18% chance to make the playoffs and a 2% chance to win the AFC South, according to FiveThirtyEight.

“Many would, would, could’ve, wouldn’t they?” center Ryan Kelly said after the game. “But the NFL isn’t like that.”

After the Eagles took a 17-16 lead, the Colts had the ball with 1:20 left and a timeout to win the game. It was a great opportunity for Ryan, a proven clutch player, to put together a game-winning drive. He didn’t even have a chance, though. On third-and-9 from the Colts’ 40, Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham broke through with freshman left tackle Bernhard Raimann. Ryan was sacked for a seven-yard loss.

The ensuing desperation fourth-down attempt was made more difficult by right fielder Will Fries, who called for a false start. That turned a fourth-and-16 into a game-ending fourth-and-21 (running back Deon Jackson could pick up just five yards before being pushed out of bounds).

Those two moments — the sack and the penalty — highlighted a game in which the Colts’ high-priced offensive line, a week after its best performance of the season, was once again the Achilles’ heel of the team

Raimann and Fries, unproven starters, accounted for five of eight penalties against the Eagles, which cost 35 yards on drives that could have given the Colts a cushion. Ryan was also sacked four times in the second half after not being sacked once before the break.

The most expensive? At the end of the fourth quarter.

On third-and-goal from the Eagles’ 5, with the Colts knocking on the door for a touchdown, Ryan was sacked for a 14-yard loss. Raimann was defeated by Hassan Reddick.

That sack cost Indianapolis four points, leading to a field goal that gave them just a six-point lead. The Eagles marched down their ensuing possession for a touchdown (and PAT) that gave them the lead.

The problem wasn’t just pass protection. Taylor also didn’t have the rush lanes to operate. After eight carries for 49 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, he averaged just 2.5 yards per carry on his 14 rushing attempts the rest of the game.

Sunday was a reminder of the dismal state of the Colts’ offensive line, which accounted for a league-high 19.5% of the team’s cap space.

Through 11 games, there is no evidence the unit can find consistency.

“I thought the effort was excellent. Those guys were pushing and fighting and doing their best, but again, it’s the details that matter,” he said Saturday of the offensive line. “Just going back and training those details, making sure we understand it and then executing it.”

The Colts defense has done its part. He has been a steady force amid a disappointing season.

Of course, Jalen Hurts went out late in the game. But the Eagles, a team-best three goals entering the game, were held to a season-low 17 points.

DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart lead a stout defense. Inside linebacker Zaire Franklin, who is enjoying a Pro Bowl-caliber season, leads the NFL in combined tackles through Sunday (109). Stephon Gilmore has shown that he is still a great cornerback. Defensive backs Rodney McLeod Jr., Kenny Moore and Isaiah Rodgers have also made timely plays in the secondary.

“Listen, hats off to (defensive coordinator) Gus (Bradley) and the whole defense,” he said Saturday. “Those guys shut down. To hold Philly to 17 points like they did, I mean to me, that’s a game-winning performance from those guys.

“They did a good job, they had a great plan, they executed it, and to top it off, we had three of the guys that were sick all week and basically couldn’t practice. Not only did they overcome the illness, but the way they played man, I told Gus I thought they had a really good performance, they gave us a lot of chances to win.”

Opportunities: that were not capitalized on.

The defense has no real help. The offense has disappointed all year. Through quarterback changes, offensive line adjustments and coaching adjustments, the offense is finding a way to return to the underperforming unit it has been since September.

That’s the reality he faces on Saturday.

The way the Colts season has gone, there is no pretty storybook ending.

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) before moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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