Insider: Colts interim coach Jeff Saturday pockets his timeouts as comeback plan blows up

INDIANAPOLIS -- Matt Ryan was off and running on another final-minute scramble, desperate to lead another comeback win, as interim coach Jeff Saturday pulled his microphone closer to his mouth for one of his first real decisions as an NFL coach.

Colts offensive play caller Parks Frazier was in his ear, watching from a skybox in Lucas Oil Stadium as Ryan did the improbable, much like he did two weeks ago against the Raiders, in their first win together in these roles.

But each game has its own personality, with its own traps and challenges. And this one called for Saturday to take control.

He had three timeouts in his pocket. As Ryan lunged toward the first-down marker, he first had to see where the spot would be, and it would up three yards short. The time ticked below 50 seconds.

The timeouts stayed in his pocket.

Instead, the Colts ran an inside zone play up the middle to Jonathan Taylor for no gain. They created a final play with 30 seconds left, and Ryan threw into double coverage to Parris Campbell, the ball hit the turf and the Colts lost 24-17 to the Steelers on Monday Night Football.

Jeff Saturday is now 1-2 as the Indianapolis Colts' interim coach.
Jeff Saturday is now 1-2 as the Indianapolis Colts' interim coach.

"I felt like we had time. We would have had timeouts afterwards," Saturday said of the decision to run with Taylor. "We were in striking distance. So yeah, I never felt like the pressure of needing the timeout. Like I said, I thought the call was good. We were in that mode pretty much the whole second half, so it was pretty consistent with what we were doing."

This was Saturday and Frazier trying to stick to who they were, even if they had to forge those identities on the fly three weeks ago. Saturday is a former 14-year center in the NFL, 13 with the Colts, and linemen love to run. Frazier likes to say he stays aggressive in his own ways, and he likes to show that aggressiveness can come through the run game. They know their best player is their running back.

This was supposed to be a surprise moment. In a passing league, in 2022, they were going to rush to the line with a defense scrambling and do something different. The problem was, it didn't surprise the Steelers or defensive end Alex Highsmith, who cut inside a Jelani Woods back to thrust Taylor to the ground.

"They kind of hurried up to the ball, and having watched the film and knowing the position the tight end was in, I could tell that he was going to cut me off and it was going to be a run play," Highsmith said. "With the back depth and how quickly they were getting up to the ball, I knew it was going to be a run play."

To the Colts, the clock felt inconsequential with those three timeouts. This was about the battle with downs.

"I mean, would I have liked him to snap it a little bit earlier? Sure," Saturday said. "But again, I never felt pressed for time. I never felt like we wanted to get to something different."

But this forged identity isn't the only one in play for the Colts. They also have a quarterback in Ryan who has been through this far longer than they have, with 38 career fourth-quarter comebacks, good for the fourth-most in NFL history. He's led this Colts team on five such comebacks already this season, representing their four wins and a tie. He's been doing this, with this team, since Saturday was working in an ESPN studio.

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Arthur Maulet (35) sacks Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan (2) Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Arthur Maulet (35) sacks Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan (2) Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

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Ryan is a quarterback. He scans the defense, finds the mismatch and throws the best option. He wasn't that in that moment, because the Colts had dialed up a run.

"I mean, I don't mind the call," Ryan said. "We were going with some tempo, trying to get that first and then probably bang a timeout after that first."

Like so much with this Colts team, this sequence will spark another chicken-or-the-egg debate. Did the Colts fail on execution when they took time to snap, Woods missed the block on Highsmith and Taylor got tackled in the backfield? Or did they execute poorly because of the decision to run on 3rd-and-3, without the chance to survey a defense after a timeout?

They have put together an ironic season through 12 games of high and low moments in these scenarios. They've come back for some thrilling late victories, like on Ryan's fade route to Alec Pierce to beat the Jaguars and the slant he threw to Parris Campbell to beat the Raiders. They've also fallen short on other attempts, like with Taylor's fumble against the Titans, the offensive line crumbling against the Eagles and Rodrigo Blankenship's missed field goal in the tie against the Texans.

What they haven't done is storm out to a lead and protect it throughout a game. They have chosen to live with fire, always coming back, fighting the clock and the pass rush and the decisions of whether to throw to win or to live through Taylor, the best player they have.

In the past two weeks, they've chosen different paths and lost. Against the Eagles, they sat Taylor and played Deon Jackson as the receiving back for a two-minute scenario, and Philadelphia's pass rushers teed off on those obvious passing downs. Against the Steelers, they not only played Taylor over Jackson but tried to live through him against the ticks of the clock.

"It's kind of one thing one week, it's another thing another week, it's another thing another week, and that part has been frustrating for sure," Ryan said.

"I think all of us in the building feel that way and are disappointed with where we're at.”

What's left is a 4-7-1 team whose season is running out of time.

Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at natkins@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts vs. Steelers: Why Jeff Saturday didn't call timeouts in final minute