Indianapolis Colts fans couldn’t be blamed for hiding their eyes and not wanting to watch the final 37 seconds of Sunday’s dramatic season opener against the Detroit Lions at Lucas Oil Stadium.
A defense that had done little to distinguish itself was entrusted with protecting a 1-point lead. There wasn’t much time left, but as it turned out, more than enough for the Colts to miss a few more tackles and fail to finish.
The Lions drove 50 yards in seemingly the blink of an eye, or in this instance, just three plays and a mere 25 seconds, to set up Matt Prater’s deciding 43-yard field goal with 4 seconds remaining.
“Defensively, we played (poorly),” Colts middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said after the 39-35 home loss to the Lions.
The Colts had rallied behind quarterback Andrew Luck’s 385 passing yards and 4 touchdowns to take the lead. The Lions got the ball at their 25-yard line with three timeouts.
“We knew it was going to come down to us,” Jackson said.
“You always want to be trusted to close the game,” outside linebacker Robert Mathis said.
But it was the Lions who made it look easy.
Colts defenders had struggled much of the afternoon to tackle running backs Theo Riddick (108 total yards, 2 TDs) and Ameer Abdullah (120 total yards, 1 TD). Riddick started the quick-strike drive with a 19-yard reception off a short pass.
“We’re paid to get ’em on the ground. They’re paid to break those tackles,” Mathis said. “They earned their money a little bit more than we did, so back to the drawing board.”
Problem is, the Colts were expected to win this one. They were at home. They were going up against a Lions team that started 1-7 a year ago.
Now this defense has to regroup for a road trip to the Mile High City against the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (1-0). Not to mention the short-handed Colts are now even more banged up on the injury front than when they started the day.
Rookie safety T.J. Green (knee), cornerback Patrick Robinson (concussion) and backup safety Winston Guy (ankle) were sidelined against the Lions. Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis (ankle), nickel back Darius Butler (knee), safety Clayton Geathers (foot) and defensive end Henry Anderson (knee) never got the chance to suit up and were watching in street clothes. The Colts are also without starting defensive tackle Arthur Jones, who is serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
“There isn’t any excuse,” said linebacker Sio Moore, who had a game-high 13 tackles.
“Whoever is out there, we expect you to play winning football,” he said. “The season isn’t going to stop for us.”
Jackson blamed himself for not playing well, and that wasn’t just an 11th-year pro falling on the proverbial sword. Last season, his 150 tackles ranked second in the NFL. On Sunday, Jackson had just two stops.
“I didn’t play a good enough game by any stretch of the imagination,” Jackson said. “We knew what we were up against. It wasn’t a chess match out there. We were pretty confident in what they were doing. It came down to making plays.
“It’s simple. I don’t need to watch the film. We have to play better fundamental football. I know I didn’t play a good enough game by any stretch of the imagination.”
He lowered his head and said the Colts “couldn’t accept” what they did on defense.
“That’s the leader of our defense right there,” Moore said. “You all saw it. Thirty some seconds left. We’ve got to handle our deal as a defense. The defense has to stop scores at the end of the game. We have to do that.”
Mathis didn’t hesitate to echo that explanation.
“Missed tackles. Defensive 1-on-1s. We’ve got to make those tackles,” the six-time Pro Bowl selection said. “When you do things like that, you breathe life into an offense.”
Mathis was also noticeably absent on the stat sheet. The franchise’s all-time sack leader also finished with just 2 tackles.
Lions quarterback Matt Stafford was sacked only once and experienced just six hurries from a quiet Colts pass rush, which allowed 31-of-39 passing for 340 yards and 3 touchdowns. Detroit led 21-3 in the second quarter before the Colts rallied.
Just when the Colts were close again at 21-18, Stafford drove his team 71 yards in just seven plays, the last one an 11-yard touchdown pass to Abdullah. Two Colts linebackers got caught in space and weren’t even remotely close to stop the score.
The offseason saw the Colts try to address the offensive line with four of their eight draft picks. Not much was done to bolster the defense.
At the end of Sunday, the Colts sure appeared to be what many thought they might be — plenty of offense, but not much defense.
“If you expect to win in this league, you can’t give up that many points,” Jackson said. “Any other team, that would have been a blowout.”