Jeff Saturday has a significant supporter in the Colts locker room.
Although the former ESPN analyst-turned interim coach went 1-7 with Indianapolis after replacing Frank Reich in a shock midseason hiring, star linebacker Shaquille Leonard is singing his praises as the team’s head coaching search continues.
“Jeff is a great coach,” Leonard said on The Pat McAfee Show Friday after McAfee mentioned he heard Saturday was a bad coach. “You need to cut that out. I can’t stand that. It makes me so mad. Man, listen, Jeff came in with the right mindset that he wasn’t going to sit back and allow just bad play. It was more so he demanded excellence from everybody. That offensive line, I mean, of course everybody would criticize that offensive line. You see they got better, didn’t they? He came in and made sure that everybody knew exactly what was at stake and what he wanted out of each and every player.”
Saturday took over the team in Week 10 following Indy’s third straight defeat, a 26-3 loss against the Patriots that saw the Colts O-line give up a season-high nine sacks and allow 18 pressures.
A six-time Pro Bowl center during his 14-year career, Saturday’s arrival paid immediate dividends for both the offensive line and the Colts as a whole. The club upset the Raiders in Saturday’s debut while allowing just a single sack on four pressures.
But the team-wide turnaround didn’t last.
Although the Colts nearly upset the future Super Bowl-representative Eagles the following week, they ended the season on a seven-game losing streak that included a 54-19 blowout against the Cowboys in prime time, the largest blown lead (33 points) in NFL history against the Vikings and a season-concluding loss to the three-win Texans.
Leonard is spot on about the offensive line, however.
Indy allowed 3.1 sacks per contest in eight games under Saturday compared to 3.8 per game in its first nine weeks. The pressures allowed per game also dropped from 13.7 to 9.8 during the first-time head coach’s tenure.
It’s not a mind-blowing improvement — the Colts still allowed the second-most sacks in the league overall — but it aligns with Leonard’s point that Saturday wasn’t some bumbling placeholder. He enjoyed the coach’s demanding demeanor and insistence on calling out anything less than full effort.
“I hate that he gets a lot of hate,” Leonard said. “Because coming in Week 8, Week 9, and not knowing a coach on your coaching staff, how do you expect him to come in and go 8-0, 9-0, whatever? You know, give him a full offseason, give him his coaching staff or whatever the case may be, and I think that it’d be a great spot.”
NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero potentially poured some cold water on the prospects of Saturday proving Leonard right when he reported Friday on Super Bowl Live that it would be a “surprise” if the interim coach earned the full-time position.
Pelissero said that Saturday is one of four remaining candidates for the job alongside Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and Lions DC Aaron Glenn.
Whoever comes out on top of the Colts’ exhaustive search, Leonard insisted Indianapolis has the players to be great again following a 4-12 season.
“We got all the pieces,” he said. “We just gotta have somebody to demand it.”
It sounds like he’s confident Saturday would be one to do just that.