The door was cracked open for the Colts with three minutes to go on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Down 35-27, the New Orleans Saints faced a third-and-13 at their own 30-yard line; a stop would've given the Colts' offense the ball back with one timeout, about 2:45 left and a chance to tie the game.
Instead, quarterback Derek Carr heaved a 51-yard strike to wide receiver Rashid Shaheed, who streaked past cornerback Tony Brown to haul in the effectively game-sealing catch.
"Being as a strong competitor as I am, it's tough to lose," Brown said. "It's tough to get the last play, I feel like, on me. So right now I feel like I gotta go watch the film and I gotta get better."
The Colts' 38-27 Week 8 loss in downtown Indianapolis was the team's third in a row, and was also the third game in which an opponent scored at least 37 points. Not all of that scoring is on the Colts' defense – eight combined turnovers against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns in Weeks 6 and 7 played a role – but on Sunday, the Saints totaled 511 yards and averaged 7.7 yards per play.
With cornerback JuJu Brents (quad) out and Week 1 starter Dallis Flowers on season-ending injured reserve, the Colts' depth at outside cornerback was tested. Brown stepped in and, per Pro Football Focus, was targeted six times, with Saints pass-catchers hauling in all six of those throws for 180 yards and one touchdown.
Brown after the game took responsibility for those receptions, but the message from his teammates was it wasn't all on him.
"We gotta apply more pressure," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "Even if it's max protection, we got guys that are still getting one-on-one opportunities so we have to win those one-on-one opportunities, especially when they're down in the secondary. We can't leave those guys out to dry."
According to Pro Football Focus, Carr was under pressure on four of his 28 dropbacks; when he wasn't under pressure, he completed 16 of 24 passes for 284 yards with two touchdowns.
"Defensively we didn't get it done," Buckner said. "It's a team sport and we gotta play better complementary football. The offense is scoring points — to me, 27 points is enough points for us to come out with a (win). Crunch time moments, we gotta be on our details, be in our fits. Defensively we didn't get it done today."
The Colts' offense found a spark in the fourth quarter when quarterback Gardner Minshew connected with tight end Drew Ogletree for an impressive 33-yard touchdown, which drew the Colts within eight points midway through the final period. And the defense felt like had they been able to give the ball back to the offense, Minshew and that group would've delivered by tying the game at 35.
"We had the momentum in the game and we had a chance to make a stop to get our offense the ball back with a chance to tie the game," linebacker Zaire Franklin said, "and we failed."
Defensively, the Colts showed earlier this season they can close games out – players on that side of the ball made critical late-game plays in wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans. And despite these last three defeats, the Colts' defense remains confident in what it can do – even without a few starters at cornerback and defensive tackle Grover Stewart – as long as it, collectively, can play assignment-sound football.
"We're losing by margins," Franklin said. "It's a precision league and we just got to execute. I wouldn't say it's a talent thing, I would say we just gotta leaning into it, leaning into it and continue to get better every week. It hurts but we gotta move on.
"... It's on myself, Shaq (Leonard), Kenny (Moore II), Buck to wrap arms around this young team, wrap arms around this organization and just lean together, lean on each other, lean on our team and continue to will our team to some success."
The Colts have two road games to regroup before their bye, first at the Carolina Panthers next week and then in Germany against the New England Patriots. The sun has not set on the Colts' season, hardly; there's still more than half of the 2023 schedule ahead for this team. So the message for the Colts' defense, even in exiting a frustrating loss to the Saints, is to be resolute in their belief they're only a few plays away from being the kind of defense they showed to be earlier in 2023.
"Defensively, we know we're better than that," Buckner said. "We think we're better than that. Three weeks in a row, I just think it's the little details are beating us. It's nothing special. It's things we prepare for and in those moments we're just dropping the ball."
View the best photos from the Colts matchup versus the New Orleans Saints at Lucas Oil Stadium.