Jeff Saturday lights fire under Colts’ struggling offensive line – and it works

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The first warning came during Jeff Saturday’s initial practice with his former team, when he stopped practice and started yelling on the offensive line. This caught their attention.

“A little light a fire under your ass,” guard Will Fries said.

“He challenged us all,” added left tackle Bernhard Raimann.

Saturday’s goal last Wednesday, the same as it was in the boardroom a day later: a group that has just turned in its worst performance in five years, a unit whose staggering regression is causing of so many things that have gone wrong this season in Indianapolis.

If the line had been better from the start, you could say, Matt Ryan would never have been benched. Former offensive coordinator Marcus Brady could still have his job. Same for Frank Reich.

And while Saturday, acting coach for 48 hours at the time, had decided he wasn’t going to dip his toes into too many position groups. he wanted to let his coaches train it was different. It was personal. It was the offensive line, his passion, his life’s work, the underrated linchpin behind the franchise’s most golden era — the one he was a part of as a player.

It was supposed to be the backbone of this team, too, and have been for years.

Until it all fell apart this season.

That’s what sparked this crazy experience in the first place, remember, a call from a furious Jim Irsay during a 26-3 loss to the Patriots on Nov. 6 that started with a question from the furious owner: “Jeff, what the hell is that wrong with our protection?

Now, after a whirlwind few days, Saturday was at the training ground at the Colts’ West 56th Street facility, observing a struggling unit and a botched practice up close.

Finally, he had had enough.

He froze the session. He tore the o line. And instead of a player or two honing their technique with a positional coach on the side – which had happened in the past – Saturday insisted that the whole attack repeat play until he meet its standards. They didn’t succeed the first time, nor the second.

“It’s a responsibility on all fronts,” the coach said later. “I think it needed to be addressed…and emphasized.”

So Saturday made them run the room again.

And even.

And even.

“We had to reload a game if it wasn’t good enough for him,” Fries said. “He won’t let anything slip.”

“It wasn’t that we were blatantly beaten,” added center Ryan Kelly. “But we weren’t playing to our standards.

“Jeff has a lot of passion,” he continued, “and I have a lot of respect for him.”

The anger and attitude that had been missing for much of the season seemed to seep into the Colts’ performance on Sunday in Las Vegas, especially up front, where Indy protected his quarterback and ran the better ball than he had done all year. Per carry, the Colts averaged a season-high 4.27 yards before contact, and even shutting out Jonathan Taylor’s 66-yard touchdown in the third quarter — a nice piece of blocking from Fries, Kelly and the right tackle Braden Smith – they were at 2.31, still a season best. And that’s against a loaded box (eight or more defenders) 30% of the time, up from their season average of 22.4.


Matt Ryan enjoyed cleaner pockets than he’s been used to this season in Sunday’s win over the Raiders. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today)

Ryan’s return certainly helped. A week after Sam Ehlinger was sacked nine times and hit 12, Ryan has only been sacked once, his quick release helping to relieve the pressure on a battered front. The Colts allowed Ryan to press just a season-low 13.3% of kickbacks, and Ryan got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less nearly 80% of the time, the highest rate. high of the season team.

It was what it always was supposed Looks like.

“They really brought the whole game,” new caller Parks Frazier said. “When you come back and watch the movie, they played their freaky tails.”

But the obvious and important caveat: It’s far too early to say the Colts offensive line is back. It was against the worst pass rush in the league. The Raiders have 10 sacks in nine games, the fewest in football. They allow opposing quarterbacks an average of 2.54 seconds to throw, second-worst in the league. Their pressure rating is the fifth worst.

And it’s with Max Crosby.

It becomes real for the Colts on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, when they host one of the best passing runs in the league. The Eagles are tied for fourth in the league in sacks, with 29, and give opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of just 67.9 — by far the worst in the NFL.

Saturday worked as an offensive line consultant with the team for a few years; Reich had attempted to hire him as an offensive line coach several times. So he knew the talent and the standard. What he hadn’t seen, at least up close, was regular season practice.

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And he knew — from Irsay’s call, from all the tape he’d watched on ESPN in his previous post — that the problem was serious and that he was sabotaging everything the Colts were trying to do. offensive. This led to numerous fumbles and interceptions from Ryan, and in turn, his bench. This led to Brady getting fired. This led Reich, the head coach, to suffer the same fate.

That’s why Saturday wasted no time.

“I have a lot of respect for what these guys have done and for the way we have behaved in this position,” the interim coach said. “These guys reacted tremendously. And again, I know how difficult it is. It wasn’t a matter of effort. It was the responsibility… “This is what it’s going to look like game after game after game.”

“And these guys responded. I’ll hold you accountable, but I’ll also be a great cheerleader, and that’s what I was on Sunday.

Maybe Saturday will toughen up the Colts. Maybe it’s just a game. He took his team away on Wednesday, amid 35-degree temperatures and snow showers, for a chilly training four days before playing a match at the interior. (Reich regularly had the Colts practice away, with home games at Lucas Oil Stadium looming.) One notable difference from the normal routine: the ping-pong tables and pop-a- shots that were the pillars of the players’ locker room. all season were out on Wednesday.

The tone was set from the first training session by the coach who was still trying to catch his breath. Jeff Saturday intended not to be this guy – one who shows up and acts like he knows everything. But if there’s one thing he knows, it’s how to win up front. On this he could not be silent.

“(Sunday) felt like we were getting back to the physical form we are used to,” Kelly said. “Like a reset, us rediscovering the confidence we’ve played with for the past two years.”

It looked like that too. But now comes the hardest part: proving it wasn’t a fluke of a game against a bad team.

(Top photo: David Becker/Associated Press)

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