1. The Colts got a boost from Jeff Saturday, but it took more than that to win.
Players bought into Saturday's juice and authenticity during his first team meeting as interim head coach on Wednesday, and the team approached preparations for the Raiders with energy, focus and accountability throughout the week – which then carried over to Sunday's game at Allegiant Stadium.
"Jeff did a pretty good job all week just kind of holding us accountable," wide receiver Parris Campbell said. "I think that's the biggest thing that I personally took away, the way he talked about accountability and the way he preached it and the way he demanded that throughout the week. Once we got to the game and you see him on the sideline, it was like, alright, he's counting on me, I'm counting on him, let's go do this.
"He spoke positivity the whole game, throughout the sidelines, when things weren't going right, a mistake was made, he just preached positivity the whole game. I think that went a long way."
But energy only goes so far over a 60-minute game.
"To me, emotion usually runs out about midway through the first quarter," Saturday said. "Now, we're execution."
The Colts executed in critical moments – they converted 55 percent of third down tries and had two game-clinching stops on defense near the end of regulation – but players also didn't stray from their assignments throughout the afternoon, allowing opportunities for in-game fixes and adjustments.
"Execution is doing exactly what we're coached to do so if we have to solve problems mid-game, we understand where everybody is supposed to be so that we can make an adjustment," Saturday said. "If we got guys ad-libbing or not quite doing it or not quite bought in, that's when we can't make adjustments and that's when bad goes to worse."
This is why it's not totally accurate to say the Colts won because of a jolt from their interim head coach's first game. That helped during the week, certainly, and early in Sunday's game. And, too, the Colts oozed competitiveness for 60 minutes in Las Vegas.
But it came down to execution and physicality – and the Colts executed better than the Raiders, and felt like they were more physical, too.
"Making sure that we did the process clears up so many of those issues that it's not just being carried on emotion. That can wear out on you," Saturday said. "You gotta make sure that you're mentally focused and prepared to do it play after play."
2. The execution, efficiency and explosiveness on offense was solid.
Speaking of execution: The Colts only had two offensive plays – out of 57 non-kneel-downs – that lost yardage on Sunday. This was against a Raiders defense, by the way, headlined by a negative play machine in defensive end Maxx Crosby, who has seven sacks and a league-leading 14 tackles for a loss.
Not only did the Colts have their fewest negative plays in a game (the previous low was seven, which came in Weeks 1 and 8), but they set a new season high with four plays of 30 or more yards: Completions by Matt Ryan to Kylen Granson for 32 yards and to Parris Campbell for 35 yards (which was a touchdown), a 39-yard scramble by Ryan (more on that later) and a 66-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Taylor.
The Colts turned each of those explosive plays into a touchdown, too, either directly (on Campbell and Taylor's plays) or indirectly (Campbell's touchdown came a few plays after Ryan's scramble; Ryan finished off the drive sparked by Granson's catch-and-run with a quarterback keeper touchdown).
One more important stat here: On first and second down, Ryan completed 17 of 21 passes for 185 yards (8.8 yards/attempt), while the Colts combined to rush 26 times for 154 yards on early downs. That's how you get into makable third downs – the Colts converted six of 11 tries – and hold back an opposing pass rush.
The Colts intentionally simplified their gameplan with a focus on execution, and with Parks Frazier pulling the strings, it paid off in an efficient, explosive afternoon.
"Simple and effective, baby. We just kept it nice and tight," tight end Kylen Granson said. "We were running the ball, passing it, play-action, getting some screen game going, we were just keeping them on their heels and making sure to keep pounding on them, make sure we had than off balance so we could execute.
3. Inside Matt Ryan's return – and his 39-yard scramble.
Saturday mostly implemented a handful of tweaks to the Colts' practice plan and schedule during the week, and he tapped Frazier to call plays in part with a focus on continuity to allow other assistants to keep their same week-to-week responsibilities. The biggest change Saturday made, then, was at quarterback, in going back to the veteran Ryan.
The reason was clear: Saturday felt Ryan gave the Colts the best chance to win.
"Everything that's been done has been done to win," Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay said. "It's very simple. Nothing's been done for any reason except, what's the best for the franchise. And the same thing with Matt starting today."
We went through the process of how Ryan went from not practicing Wednesday to starting Sunday here. Saturday on Monday delved further into his decision:
"I had seen Sam (Ehlinger) all on Wednesday," Saturday said. "So, from the quarterback perspective, it's kind of a volume throwing thing, right? So, I gave Matt (Ryan) all the snaps (Thursday) – it may not have been all of them, the majority of them. Don't hold me to it, I can't remember exactly but I let him be the guy on Thursday to see what it was going to feel like, what does it look like, how does he throw? Because from my perspective, I haven't seen him. I don't know what practice looks like for him. I needed to get a good feel of his command in the huddle.
"I had seen Sam on Wednesday, was very pleased with how he played on Wednesday and then on Thursday, I wanted to see what Matt looked like. To me, he looked really good. So, I backed it up the same way on Friday, let him go at it, wanted to see what two days would feel like for him. He kept assuring me, I feel good, I feel fine but again, from a guy who hadn't been here in the building, I wanted to make sure what all that looked like. I thought Friday's practice in all honesty was our best practice of the week and was the most spirited and was the most precise – very few errors. It felt like our tempo was really good. So, that's really what solidified it for me."
Ryan was accurate and efficient, completing 21 of 28 passes for 222 yards. But his biggest highlight came on a critical third-and-three with just under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Colts trailing, 20-19.
"A really good play call by Parks — we kind of went with some tempo, they're trying to see if couldn't just pick something up, get a guy in space," Ryan said. "But with that being said it opened up a running lane to the right and it was man to man coverage so everybody was flowing to the left. Got out, I thought Parris did a good job of getting it started, of just wadding it up. And then Ashton did a great job blocking downfield and we were at the point in the game where we needed to make plays, we needed to do something. We didn't need to press or anything like that, but when you get a chance you gotta make them and it was a great call and a great job by Ashton finishing downfield.
"Maybe if I was a little faster I could've scored, but I did the best I could."
It was the longest rush of Ryan's career, and the 39 yards he gained were more rushing yards than he's had in any game over his 230 starts in the NFL. But it wasn't just that Ryan pulled off a remarkable highlight when he cut back – and gained about 14 more yards – instead of going out of bounds. It was the situation: If the Colts don't convert that third down, the Raiders take over possession with the lead and under seven minutes to go. And if Ryan doesn't stretch that rush into nearly a 40-yard gain, it doesn't put Campbell in striking distance to have a catch-and-run touchdown to take the lead.
"I was surprised, then I saw him make the cut-back and I was even more surprised after that," Campbell said. "But he made a huge play that we needed in that moment."
View postgame celebration photos following the Colts 25-20 win versus the Raiders at Allegiant Stadium.
4. Bobby Okereke and Stephon Gilmore stepped up at the end of the game.
Saturday's message to the Colts before and during Sunday's game was this: "It's gonna come down to the last play," he said. "It always does in the NFL, and who goes hardest the longest ultimately wins."
Week 10 did come down to the last play. And the play before that. And the play before that.
The situation facing the Colts with about a minute and a half left:
- Leading by five
- Raiders ball on the Colts' 19-yard line
- Second and 10
Quarterback Derek Carr had just misfired on a screen to running back Josh Jacobs on first down. On second and 10, the Raiders lined up in the I-formation and handed off to Jacobs, who entered Week 10 averaging 5.4 yards per carry (for reference, Taylor averaged 5.5 yards per carry in 2021).
Jacobs saw a hole to his left and bounced his run through it. But linebacker Bobby Okereke did a fantastic job disengaging from tackle Kolton Miller, reading Jacobs' rush lane and hitting him just beyond the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was there, too, and the two players combined to bring down Jacobs for a gain of three.
Fitting that Okereke and Gilmore set up their game-clinching heroics by combining to make a play on second down, isn't it?
Okereke then swatted away a Carr seam ball to tight end Foster Moreau on third and seven, reading his opponent's eyes and flashing his hands at the ball as soon as it tipped Moreau's hands. On fourth down, the Raiders looked to one of the best receivers in the NFL to make a game-winning play – but that meant throwing the ball Gilmore's way.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, by the way, sent a blitz, with both linebackers on the field attacking the pocket. And who got a little pressure on Carr, forcing him to drift back a bit before he could release the throw?
Gilmore used the sideline as a defender and forced an incompletion, clinching the win for Saturday and the Colts.
"Shout out to Gilly once again, of course," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "Guys made the plays that needed to be made when it had to happen and Bobby O as well. A lot of great plays, a lot of great performances on that last drive."
5. The challenge for the Colts? Do it again.
Saturday was asked on Monday how he'll look to sustain things after the initial boost of him coming in as the Colts' interim head coach may wear off. His answer was illuminating:
"Sustainability, we talked about it last night," Saturday said. "We've still got a lot of games left and we have processes in place that we know we have to achieve and we have to execute too. So, we talked about that last night on the plane ride home. Making sure roles were clarified, anything that had to be moved around or adjusted a little bit. The biggest adjustments that I made so far from a scheduling point, I want to make sure that's not taxing the staff even more.
"The process to me is the most important. How do you get yourself around the ebbs and flows of the league? I learned this from Tony (Dungy) and Jim Caldwell, is the process doesn't change. We understand the key contributors to wins – turnover ratio, special teams, not giving up big plays, making big plays. Making sure we're checking all of those boxes along with our install game plans, the thought process. Make sure we're not losing the macro view or the micro view, keeping it all kind of tied in. To me, that's my job right now, is making sure that we're not missing on those areas. I feel like everybody is on top of it. Again, as excited as we were about beating the Raiders, we've got to go play the Eagles. The game don't change. It keeps moving on. We've got another opportunity this week and we're excited about it."