INDIANAPOLIS - In a game that involved strictly reserves, players fighting for a roster spot, and field goals, the Bengals defense fittingly came up with the best chance to win the game when linebacker Chris Carter's sack-and-strip turned into rookie lineman Marcus Hardison's fumble recovery at the Colts 34 with 3:54 left in Thursday night's preseason finale tied at 6 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Then running back James Wilder Jr., ripped off a 19-yard run to set up Tom Obarski's 28-yard field goal with 2:49 left to give the Bengals a 9-6 victory as Obarski redeemed himself. Rookie safety Floyd Raven Sr. sealed the game with an interception four snaps later at the Colts 15 as the Bengals defense saved its first four turnovers of the preseason for Thursday.
The Bengals backup defenders dominated and didn't allow the Colts to score until 3:44 left in the third quarter when Adam Vinatieri kicked a 26-yard field goal that cut Cincinnati's lead to 6-3.
A pair of rookies made the stand with linebacker P.J. Dawson blowing up a run and defensive lineman DeShawn Williams forcing the field goal with a sack. It was that kind night. On their next stand the Bengals pulled off a three-and-out with tackle Devon Still making the penetration on third down.
Earlier in the game Dawson also had a third-down sack.
But when the Colts had to settle for another 26-yard field goal with 9:26 left in the game, it was tied at six. The Bengals gave up their longest play of the night on the series, a 42-yard crossing pattern to wide receiver Duron Carter.
Early in the fourth quarter the Bengals had a shot to take a 9-3 lead, but Obarski badly hooked a 30-yard field-goal try. They got in position to try thanks to a 24-yard pass interference call on Colts cornerback Eric Patterson working against rookie wide receiver Jake Kumerow on a play Patterson had trouble dealing with the 6-4 Kumerow's size.
Mike Nugent returned to the building where he kicked a career-long 57-yarder in last season's play-off game and converted his first field goal try of the season on a 41-yarder that gave the Bengals a 3-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
Nugent hit another one from 35 yards with eight seconds left in the half for a 6-0 half-time lead on a kick set up by cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris's interception.
Nugent's first field-goal came courtesy of an excellent blitz adjustment between backup quarterback AJ McCarron and wide receiver Brandon Tate. With McCarron under duress in an all-out blitz, he unloaded it just in time to Tate slanting inside cornerback Sheldon Price. Tate promptly delivered a stiff arm to Price and went on a 48-yard play.
Turnovers plagued both clubs on a night the Bengals had five fumbles and lost two. With a 3-0 lead, McCarron hit rookie tight end Tyler Kroft for a 19-yard catch-and-run over the middle, but Kroft fumbled it away at his own 36 when safety Colt Anderson delivered a shot to his midsection. Kroft left with a stinger, but returned.
Lewis-Harris' pick got Kroft off the hook and he bailed out rookie running back Terrelle Watson early in the second half after Watson's fumble at the Bengals 33.
After third-string quarterback Bryan Bennett fired a 24-yard completion, he tried one too many and went over the middle when the Colts were facing a fourth-and-four from the Bengals 4. Lewis-Harris got his hands on it, tipped it, and safety Shiloh Keo corralled it for the end-zone interception.
McCarron played the first three quarters and never had much time in taking a slew of hits. He fumbled twice (the Bengals got both back) while hitting 15 of 28 passes for 219 yards.
There wasn't much offense on this night. Late in the third quarter Bengals rookie wide receiver Mario Alford ripped off a 17-yard punt return with help from a block by wide receiver Greg Little and looked like he could have had a lot more but got tripped just as he was about to step away.
As expected, the Bengals began the game with virtually none of their starters. Only center Russell Bodine on offense and linebacker A.J. Hawk on defense got the nod.
Hawk has played minimally this preseason because they've gone against primarily nickel packages, but on the game's first series he showed why they think he'll help against the run. On fourth-and-one he beat a block by the fullback to turn the play into the arms of Dawson to force a punt.
Then Hawk did it again on third-and-one on the third series when he flipped running back Vick Ballard head over heels as the line supplied good penetration.
It looked like the Bengals were getting defensive tackle Pat Sims ready to play for the opener after he missed the last two games with an unknown ailment. He started and played the first three series. Brandon Thompson also started at tackle and came out in the third series for Devon Still. The combo helped the defense force punts on all six series in the first half.
The Bengals surrounded Bodine with Eric Winston at left guard and Dan France at right guard and rookie Jake Fisher at left tackle and Matthew O'Donnell at right tackle on the offensive line. They gave McCarron enough time to convert a third-and-three when he found Little for a slant that picked up 18 yards.
Little came in looking for a big game since it is thought he's grinding for that last receiver spot with the rookie Kumerow.
Following Little's big pickup, the line allowed an eight-yard loss to running back Cedric Peerman when inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera shot the gap over the right side unblocked. Then McCarron got sacked to end the first drive.
On his third series, McCarron had Tate wide open down the right sideline with a step on cornerback D'Joun Smith but he overthrew him.
Yet he came back on third-and-six and made a nice back shoulder throw to Little that allowed him to defeat the coverage of cornerback Chance Casey for a 16-yard gain.
As the scoreless game veered into the second quarter, the Bengals changed up on the offensive line and moved Trey Hopkins into right guard, T.J. Johnson into center and Tanner Hawkinson into left guard.
A Dawson sack forced a fifth straight punt. Linebacker Marquis Flowers left the game with a shoulder injury.
Nugent kicked off for the first time this season when the Bengals won the toss and deferred.
PRE-GAME NOTES:Last year in the finale, only Bodine made the start when he was a rookie.
It was a short Not Expected To Play list, but the Did Not Play list is going to be a lot longer. Cornerback Leon Hall and running back Rex Burkhead weren't expected to play, but it's not clear if that's because of injury. Emmanuel Lamur, who pulled his hamstring in Tampa last week, missed last Saturday's game, and wasn't expected to play against the Colts.
Cornerback Brandon Ghee (hamstring), linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee), and right end Michael Johnson (knee) haven't played all preseason and weren't expected to go Thursday.
The game captains were Andy Dalton, Rey Maualuga, A.J. Hawk, Eric Winston, and Brandon Tate.
WINSTON STATEMENT: Bengals backup tackle Eric Winston, president of the NFL Players Association, suggested in his statement Thursday in the wake of the Tom Brady decision that the players and the league have a ways to go in coming up with a better policy for discipline.
After a court overturned the league's four-game suspension of Brady for his role in Deflate-gate Thursday, Winston released the following statement via the NFLPA:
"I am happy for Tom, and it's important to remember that when one player's rights are upheld, it is a victory for all players. However, this whole ordeal has highlighted the need for players and owners to work together to make all policies fair and transparent for everyone in our game. I welcome an opportunity to have open and constructive dialogue with the league in the near future for how we can best accomplish that."
Winston, Andre Smith's backup at right tackle, started at left guard.