Ever the professional, Stephon Gilmore faced reporters after Sunday's last-minute loss to the Washington Commanders and lamented his role in what turned out to be the biggest play of the game.
Never mind the fact Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke, with about 34 seconds remaining, had all day to throw the fateful pass from around midfield. Never mind the fact the ultra-talented Terry McLaurin, who has made numerous 'how did he do that?' catches in his four-year NFL career, was able to hold on to the football just a split second longer than Gilmore one yard away from the end zone.
No, with the game in the Colts defense's hands, it simply wasn't able to get the job done on this afternoon — this, despite the fact the unit had played mostly solid football for the first 59 minutes and 26 seconds of this Week 8 matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium.
That fateful 33-yard completion set up a one-yard rushing touchdown for Heinicke on the very next play, resulting in a disappointing 17-16 home loss for the Colts.
"We just didn't play well in situational football," Gilmore said. "I've got to make that play. No matter how long it (develops), I still gotta make that play."
Gilmore is his own harshest critic, and no one in the Colts' locker room, of course, was faulting him for not coming down with what would've been an highlight-reel, game-sealing interception, given the situation.
No, the toughest part about Sunday's result was how Indianapolis (3-4-1) had scratched and clawed its way back into a late six-point the lead — due to a strong second-half effort from all three phases — only to see the game come unraveled in the final five minutes.
Offensively, quarterback Sam Ehlinger, making his 2022 debut on Sunday, came up just short of the line-to-gain with 3:38 left on a 3rd-and-5 scramble play from the Indy 30-yard line. Head coach Frank Reich challenged the spot, but the ruling was ultimately confirmed.
Reich sent out the punt team on 4th and inches from the Colts' 34-yard line. He admitted after the game he gave serious thought to going for it, but given the field position, his young quarterback, and his confidence in the defense, he decided to try to force the Commanders' hand with less-than-ideal field position. Accordingly, Matt Haack booted a 56-yard punt that was returned for just one yard to the Washington 11-yard line.
"I thought hard about it. The way our defense was playing, I didn't know we were going to get that good of a punt, but I figured they were going to have to go 80 yards. The way our defense had been playing, I just didn't want to leave them short," Reich said. "I think the charts were pretty even. So it was hard for me not to go for it there.
"I mean, some of it is we just haven't run quarterback sneaks with Sam. It's just gaining the confidence in a quarterback sneak with the quarterback that you have and with the game on the line right there," Reich continued. "With the way the defense was playing, I was comfortable with that decision."
Despite being backed up, Heinicke and the Washington offense had little trouble moving the ball. Though the Commanders did face a 4th-and-1 play from their own 20 with 1:35 left, Heinicke was able to avoid a game-ending sack to find Curtis Samuel open over the middle for a 12-yard gain to move the chains. That was followed by a four-yard completion and a nine-yard quarterback scramble out of bounds to the Washington 45.
Then came the first of two major defensive breakdowns.
On 1st and 10, Heinicke, with a perfect pocket around him, connected with Cam Sims in the middle of the field for a 21-yard completion to the Indy 34-yard line.
The following play was the aforementioned gut punch from Heinicke to McLaurin, as Heinicke, guiding the no-huddle offense, took the snap in shotgun, dropped back about 12 yards without a hint of pressure from the four-man Colts defensive front, scanned his options, dropped back another three yards, and launched a pass to the goal line.
For a moment, despite being in coverage much longer than expected, Gilmore was able to recover to catch up to McLaurin, turn around, time his jump, and get both hands on the football. Once the two players got to the ground, however, McLaurin was able to wrestle the football away to earn the completion.
"I was on him; he ran a curl, (Heinicke) kind of scrambled out of the pocket — I don't really know what happened — I was covering him for a while," Gilmore recalled. "I did (have my hands on it). I kind of jumped late a little bit."
"You know, it was one of those things that Terry wasn't going to be denied," Commanders head coach Ron Rivera said. "The nice thing was he was in the lead position, so he got a chance to focus on the ball the whole time and was able to anticipate the jump and go get it and wrestle it away from a very good football player."
In a topsy-turvy type of season for the Colts, the team has been able to depend upon its defense for consistency nearly every week. That was the case again on Sunday — until the final Commanders drive. Now Indianapolis hopes to see better results next Sunday, this time on the road against the New England Patriots, who defeated the New York Jets, 22-17, today to improve to 4-4 on the year.
"It's tough, because we have control over it, and we didn't make the plays," Gilmore said. "Like I said, we didn't step up in the situation when we needed to. They made two chunk plays at the end of the game when I felt like we could've stopped them, but we didn't. So that's what it came down to."
The Colts take on the Washington Commanders at Lucas Oil Stadium.