For a game that features two teams with a combined record of 5-11-1, there are quite a few storylines involved with this Sunday’s Week 10 matchup between the Las Vegas Raiders and Indianapolis Colts, including DraftKings Sportsbook listing the Raiders as near touchdown favorites.
Probably the biggest storylines will be surrounding the head coaches, as Jeff Saturday makes his NFL coaching debut and Josh McDaniels looks to improve upon his abysmal record as the man in charge. But the most interesting part of the game to watch will be the one-on-one battle between a couple of All-Pros, Davante Adams and Stephon Gilmore.
Both Adams and Gilmore have been considered the top player at their respective positions which should make for a very intriguing heavyweight bout, so I made sure to ask Chris Shepherd of Stampede Blue about the matchup for this week’s five questions.
Question: Obviously, the biggest news coming out of Indianapolis this week is the firing of Frank Reich and the hiring of Jeff Saturday, who appointed assistant quarterbacks coach Parks Frazier as the play caller. Generally speaking, what are your expectations for the two new guys?
Answer: My expectations for them are that they’re going to fail.
I’ll start with the obvious: Jeff Saturday has no coaching experience at the pro or college level. Sure if you want to give him credit for his time spent coaching high school ball, leading a 3A team to a 20-16 all-time record, fine he has “experience.” Saturday does have a lot going for him, however.
You don’t spend 13 years calling out protections for Peyton Manning without having immense knowledge of the game. Protection schemes can be impacted and decided by reads at all three levels of the field so Saturday had to know what every player on both sides of the ball was doing and if he was wrong he had Manning (notoriously not an easy-going teammate) to hold him accountable.
By all accounts, Saturday is an excellent leader. Spending 14 years in the NFL being the vocal leader on an offensive line that oversaw the winningest decade in NFL history, and then going on to be chosen as the head of the NFLPA, those things tend to align well with leadership. He is self-aware and likable. Saturday has a lot of qualities that lend themselves well to being a head coach but what about everything else?
Forget for a second that he is responsible for coordinating everything that goes into running a team, forget that he’s never had to decide when to throw a challenge flag, forget that he’s never made a decision on 4th down, forget that he’s never had to manage the clock late in either half of a game, forget all of that and think about human nature for just a minute.
The Colts' coaching staff consists of 21 coaches and assistants that are all, every single one of them, far more qualified to be the interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. John Fox, a senior defensive assistant, has taken two different teams to Super Bowls. Gus Bradley was a bad head coach but he’s done a fantastic job this season and again, has head coaching experience. Bubba Ventrone is a good special teams coordinator who has relationships with most of the roster and would have been a fantastic choice if the goal were to keep the locker room together.
Instead, the owner of the Colts, with both his words and his actions, told the world that none of those 21 men were ever going to be considered. They were less qualified, somehow than a former player and current ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday. Do you believe there is ANY chance Jeff Saturday is going to convince all 21 of those men to follow him and work hard for him? How would you feel if that happened to you? And if he can’t convince them, they’re probably not going to do a great job of convincing their players to do the same for their new head coach.
But here’s the kicker, even if Jeff Saturday is the greatest leader the sport has ever seen, this team will still suck.
The offense is reliant on the offensive line and the offensive line is irreparably broken. Quenton Nelson started off the season poorly but has been looking better as the season has gone on but he’s still not playing to his standard. Ryan Kelly spent most of his career as a good but not great center and is playing like a bad to below-average center at the moment. The Colts' most consistent lineman this season is right tackle Braden Smith who had a rough couple of games to start the year but has played very well since.
But they have a hole at left tackle, and you can get by with having a hole there. Worst case the QB can just step up, well as long as Nelson and Kelly make their blocks...oh except for the fact that if you run a stunt at whoever is playing RG for the Colts, 75% of the time (approx.) this season it has created a free runner at the QB. So now you’ve got a QB stepping up into a defensive lineman who just didn’t get blocked.
I’ve already written you a book (I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, can you tell?) so I’ll spare you all of my feelings, but I have never seen a worse group of right guards in my life at any level of football. At some point, you can usually plug guys in until you find a guy who just gets in the way, who accidentally blocks the right guy, who just puts himself between the QB and the defender in front of him long enough for the QB to get a throw off, but none of the guys they’ve sent out there to do the job this season has been able to do much of anything positive.
See, it doesn’t matter who’s coaching the team when your offensive line is as bad as Indy’s has been. There’s no game plan, no scheme, and no series of plays that can overcome it. Chris Ballard somehow looked at the offensive line he assembled and thought it was good. First OC Marcus Brady took the fall for Ballard, then Reich was next and Saturday will be the next followed by everyone else on the staff.
Q: A couple of weeks ago, the Colts benched Matt Ryan for the rest of the season and named Sam Ehlinger the starter. What does Ehlinger bring to the offense that Ryan didn’t, and what does he have to do to win the job beyond this season?
Ehlinger is a far better athlete with better pocket presence and movement. He can avoid pressure that Matt Ryan doesn’t even know is there until he’s already been hit. Ehlinger has also been better at holding on to the ball when he does get hit but honestly, your QB shouldn’t be getting sacked that often to know that. In order to keep the starting job beyond this season he has to win enough games to make the Colts draft pick bad enough to miss out on drafting someone better.
Q: DraftKings Sportsbook is offering a weekly special where Davante Adams going for over 100 receiving yards and more than one receiving touchdown is a +225 bet, but he’s likely going to be going up against Stephon Gilmore. How do you see that matchup playing out? Would you take that bet?
First, I’ll just say that Gilmore is still a really good player. But at this point in their careers, Adams is superior and it’s not that close.
The only reason I wouldn’t take that bet would be concerns I might have about the Raiders' offense and Adams’ usage. But the thing is I don’t know enough about the Raiders this season to know if those concerns are valid. I’ve been a little preoccupied by the most bizarre season in Indianapolis Colts history. So if you’re not worried about his usage in the offense, I like those odds for a TD and the yards, yes.
Q: I know Deforest Bucker is a monster in the trenches who doesn’t get bested much but have teams found a way to keep him in check? If you were the Raiders’ offensive coordinator, how would you gameplan around him?
I gotta be honest I wouldn’t worry about DeFo. He’s really good but he isn’t the best defensive tackle the Colts have, that guy is named Grover Stewart. Grove drew the double team that allowed DeFo to get his sack last week. Grover is unblockable 1 on1. The Colts stink but there’s a reason they’re giving up the second-fewest yards per rush in the NFL and it’s the combination of Grover Stewart and DeForest Buckner.
The best way to beat them is to run to DeFo’s side when Grove is in the game and when they rotate Grove out, run it right at his replacement. Otherwise hit the edges and hope for the best. In the passing game, work the flats — this is still Gus Bradley we’re talking about so the flats are going to be open. Get the ball out quickly so the rush doesn’t get home and take the check-downs. This Colts' defense has actually been really good, which is wild considering they just fired their head coach. This season is insane, man.
Q: Be honest, is the Colts’ fanbase on board with tanking and kind of hoping that they lose out to have a chance at a quarterback?
I’ve kind of disconnected from the fanbase this week, after the 3rd or 4th person I saw trying to spin Saturday into the guy who was going to save the season and get the team to the playoffs, I realized I didn’t need those delusions in my life. But the fan base should be completely on board with it.
What’s the alternative? Are we going to send a conditional 2nd rounder to the Lions for Jared Goff? Jimmy G? The corpse of Aaron Rodgers? I do know that a lot of people genuinely believed Jim Irsay when he said they weren’t tanking and the scariest part of it is that every single move Irsay has made this year directly points to trying to lose games. But I’m afraid that he actually believes what he’s doing gives the team the best chance to win.
And that’s way worse than tanking.