Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis showed his hand in Thursday night's preseason finale at Paul Brown Stadium when he started all but one backup against the Colts.
With Lewis now focused on the Ravens in the Sept. 7 season-opener at Baltimore, rookie center Russell Bodine was the only projected Opening Day starter to take the field for the first series on offense and defense.
So the Bengals put on a rookie show in the first half and then a defense and special teams extravaganza in the second half in rolling to a 35-7 victory over the Colts.
Running back Jeremy Hill banged away for 60 yards on 15 carries to set up quarterback Jason Campbell's one-yard touchdown pass to fullback Ryan Hewitt with 3:58 left in the first half to give the Bengals a 7-0 lead. Colts linebacker Andy Studebaker tipped the ball back in coverage and Hewitt followed it right in to his hands.
You could count Hewitt in there for Opening Day starters, but who knows what formation the Bengals start with in Baltimore.
"You always want to go into the half with a lead, so I'm happy with that," Lewis said at the half, "but I would have liked to have seen us tackle better and do a better job winning the line of scrimmage on offense."
Then 1:20 into the second half, wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher took a punt 77 yards for a touchdown for the second time in as many preseasons. A minute later veteran safety Danieal Manning took a wounded duck thrown by Colts quarterback Chandler Harnish in the middle of the field as he was flushed from the pocket and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to give the Bengals a 21-0 lead just 2:33 into the second half.
Manning gave them something to think about heading into Saturday's cuts. During his nine-year career Manning has returned kicks instead of covering them and now that he's covering them, he's not as used to it as the guys he's battling with to stay at safety, Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams. His pick 6 was the second in four days after cornerback Terence Newman's 54-yard robbery of Carson Palmer in Arizona.
Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton also made a late bid to make the team and 13:59 left in the preseason may or may be too late. After a surprisingly sluggish preseason, Hamilton hooked up with old friend Tyler Wilson for a 50-yard touchdown catch to make it 28-0 with 13:59 left in the game. Wilson, the former Razorbacks quarterback who found Hamilton 90 times at Arkansas two years ago, threw a quick ball to Hamilton at the line of scrimmage. No one touched Hamilton after he made first-year free-agent cornerback Sheldon Price miss the tackle.
Cornerback Onterio McCalebb secured another year on the practice squad with alert play on defense and the former Auburn speedster ripped off a 59-yarder on his first kickoff return of the season. That set up running back James Wilder's two-yard touchdown run, capping an impressive drive for the Florida State rookie that included a second-and-third effort 17-yard run. He was also helped on the drive from blocking by rookie fullback Nikita Whitklock.
The 6-1, 233-pound Hill was a beast as he racked up 123 yards of total offense on 20 touches in the first half. When he tried to dive for the first down in the last minute after he caught a 12-yard pass on the sideline, he left with a right elbow injury that classified him as probable to return. And he did, adding a powerful seven-yard run off the left edge early in the second half before giving way to Wilder. When the dust lifted, Hill had 90 yards on 20 carries to go with 70 yards on six catches.
The Bengals knitted the first-half shut out with safety Taylor Mays stoning Colts running back Zurlon Tipton on fourth-and-two in the red zone and Margus Hunt ringing up the first of his three sacks on the night.
Hunt was just as beastish as Hill in adding a tackle for a loss with his hat trick.
The reserves couldn't get out from under the penalties that have hounded them all preseason. During a scoreless first quarter Cincinnati had the ball all but four minutes, the Bengals committed four more penalties on top of the 33 they had accumulated in the first three games. When cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was called for a block in the back on a punt return, it was the 12th penalty in the kicking game.
When Campbell got the nod in place of Andy Dalton, it marked the first time since 2009 (when J.T. O'Sullivan played for Carson Palmer) Lewis didn't start his quarterback in the preseason finale and only the fourth time in his 12 years as head coach. But he never sat as many starters as he did Thursday night.
Hill carried the ball the first five plays of the game and generated two first downs before Campbell converted a third-down pass to Sanzenbacher over the middle that got negated by a pass interference penalty on tight end Alex Smith.
Hill, the second-round pick from LSU, battered for 32 yards on nine carries in the first quarter. But when there was a mixup when outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome ran right by Hill to sack Campbell and pretty much end their third drive.
The second drive got blown up when rookie wide receiver Colin Lockett was nabbed for back-to-back penalties. After his run-and-catch for 15 yards on third down was wiped out when he grabbed the defender's face mask, he false-started.
Hill came back in a big way on the next series. After he rambled for 41 yards on a screen, he picked up the blitz long enough for Campbell to convert a third-down pass to Alex Smith. Hill then skittered for eight yards after contact and converted a third-and-one behind Whitlock's block on the left edge for five more before he blew up the middle for seven yards to the half-yard line behind pulling left guard Tanner Hawkinson to set up the touchdown pass to Hewitt.
The Bengals went with Kirkpatrick, McCalebb and Chris Lewis-Harris at cornerback much of the night when the Colts went three wide receivers at the direction Harnish, the third stringer in place of Andrew Luck. Hunt penetrated on the first series to stuff a run by former Bengals running back Boom Herron for a one-yard loss.
Vincent Rey was surrounded by Jayson DiManche and Sean Porter to start the game, but Porter just can't stay healthy. For the first time in his two-year career he played in back-to-back NFL games. But he couldn't get out of the first quarter and injured his hamstring covering a punt. His return was doubtful.
The Colts didn't score until 8:44 left in the game when Harnish hit wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers for a seven-yard touchdown pass.
PREGAME NOTES: Bengals right tackle Andre Smith, ruled out of Thursday's preseason finale against the Colts at Paul Brown Stadium with a concussion, apparently won't make his season debut until Sept. 7 in the regular-season opener at Baltimore.
Starting in his place is nine-year veteran Will Svitek, believed to be embroiled in a tight roster battle for one of the last spots on the offensive line.
Tight end Tyler Eifert (shoulder) missed his third straight game even though he has been suited up the last week in practice. After playing just one snap in the second preseason game, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (hip) wasn't expected to play for the second straight game. Green-Ellis, the incumbent since 2012, is locked in another tight position watch with Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman. But Burkhead (knee) missed his second straight game and Peerman (hip) came in also expecting to sit.
With head coach Marvin Lewis expected to hardly play his starters, if at all, the stage belongs to rookie free agent James Wilder Jr., out of Florida State. After starter Giovani Bernard and the expected backup, rookie Jeremy Hill, Wilder is the only option left at running back.
Ryan Hewitt, another rookie free agent, looked more and more like he's a lock to make it after he replaced Eifert in the pregame starting lineup.
Sean Porter, playing back-to-back games for the first time in his two seasons with the Bengals, was expected to start in place of Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict (hamstring).
First-round pick Darqueze Dennard (hip) also won't go for the second straight week, but he said last week he could play if it were a regular-season game. You can't put defensive tackle Devon Still (hamstring) or wide receiver James Wright (concussion) in that category after they got hurt Sunday night in Arizona so close to this game. Both are involved in the fight for the last spot at their position and their rivals, defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi and wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, were expected to play plenty against the Colts.
Svitek's fate may be held by the status of rookie guard Trey Hopkins and his shin injury. If there's a broken bone involved, Hopkins won't be on the final 53-man roster and would most likely have to go on a list, either season-ending injured reserve or injured reserve-recall, where a player is eligible to return after eight games.
Bengals president Mike Brown attended the game after missing Sunday's game in Arizona with a minor medical situation.