INDIANAPOLIS - Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals' two most important players on offense and the unit's co-captains, both suffered turnovers Sunday in the first quarter of the season to set up the Colts' first 10 points in a first half Indy took a surprising 16-10 halftime lead.
Green and Dalton rallied in the final two minutes of the half, hooking up for a 36-yard pass interference penalty that set up Dalton's three-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Ross to cut the lead to 13-10 with 1:44 left in the half. Ross returned to the Lucas Oil Stadium floor where two years ago he set the NFL scouting combine's 40-yard dash record to score his first pro TD on a drive that featured running back Joe Mixon's 27-yard run around the left edge on third-and-one.
But it was Andrew Luck, testing his battered body for the first time since Jan. 1 2017 in the 2016 finale, who worked the two-minute magic to get ageless Adam Vinatieri's 51-yard field goal with two seconds left in the half. Another Bengals' main man, left end Carlos Dunlap, was whistled for a roughing-the-passer penalty, and when middle linebacker Preston Brown had to leave with an ankle injury (his return was probable), Luck muscled in an eight-yard pass to tight end Jack Doyle at the spot Brown vacated in the middle of the field and was manned by back-up middle backer Hardy Nickerson.
The game unfolded against the backdrop of two re-building offensive lines with the Bengals starting four new players and the Colts scrambling to replace one of their best players in injured left tackle Anthony Castonzo.
Indy replaced him with their most versatile lineman, third-year man Joe Haeg, coming in with 20 starts at right tackle, seven at right guard and two at left guard. He worked at left tackle in the preseason, but made his first regular-season start there Sunday with J'Marcus Webb moving to right tackle. Webb, in his eighth season, didn't play last year and has 44 NFL starts in a variety of spots.
But it all didn't matter in the first half the Colts O-line outplayed both Bengals lines. Luck was 20 of 25 for 170 yards and didn't sacked by the Bengals' ballyhooed pass rush while the Colts gave Dalton some heat. They didn't sack him but forced him out of the pocket a few times, once on a failed third down, and he finished the half 10 of 14 for 108 yards.
Rookie Colts head coach Frank Reich spread the field and got the ball quickly out of Luck's hand, picking on the Bengals linebackers with balls to the backs and tight ends. Tight end Eric Ebron had three catches for 39 yards, one a 26-yard touchdown racing past linebacker Jordan Evans.
It was a break-neck and tough and rather stunning first 15 minutes of the season for the Bengals. There were the turnovers, the penalties and safety Shawn Williams' ejection for a hit on Luck.
The first Dalton pass was the ultimate disaster. After Mixon took the first snap for his longest run of the summer on a seven-yard ramble through the right interior, Dalton went for him on a play-action short flip in the flat on second down. But rookie center Billy Price got run over by tackle Al Woods to put pressure on Dalton hurrying the ball out and overthrowing Mixon on a dead quail. It went right to cornerback Kenny Moore II and it looked like a pick-six until Dalton saved the day with a tackle at the Bengals 7.
The defense cashed it. After Colts rookie guard Quenton Nelson held Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins on the second snap of their marquee matchup, Dunlap smashed into Luck as Preston Brown undercut the route for an interception on his second snap as a Bengal for the their first interception of Luck ever at the Colts 7.
On his first catch in almost a year tight end Tyler Eifert was wide open on the right sideline for 29 yards and the Bengals got their first points of the season on Randy Bullock's 42-yard field goal with 8:20 left in the first quarter Mixon was the man with a run not fewer than five yards in the drive and Dalton went back to Mixon on the same screen that got picked off. This time he followed the left side of his line for 21 yards to put Cincy on the Colts 32.
But the drive stalled when running back Giovani Bernard got thrown for a two-yard loss on a sweep right and Dalton had his third-down pass batted right back at him with pressure up the middle. The usually stoic Dalton went ballistic on two officials, claiming the Colts swiped his facemask on the play.
But they had no problem making the call the next time a quarterback got hit in the head. Unfortunately for the Bengals it was on the next drive as Luck raced out of the pocket for a first down on a play that ended with Shawn Williams trying to twist his head away as he finished off the play. But they not only called a penalty on Williams, they ejected him and the Colts had a first down at the Bengals 9 with special teams captain Clayton Fejedelem checking in for Williams.
For the second time in the first quarter the Bengals defense denied the Colts in tight. Fejedelem defended Ebron in the back of the end zone on first down and after a run nudged it to the goal line, the Bengals staged a Double A Gap blitz and Evans dropped running back Jordan Wilkins for a two-yard loss to set up Vinatieri's 21-yard field goal for a 3-3 tie with 1:23 left in the exhausting first quarter.
But it wasn't over. On the next-last-play of the quarter, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green coughed up the ball at the Colts 42. He caught a quick one and as he took up it the left side, Moore stripped him from behind.
Luck made it sting. He did what Dalton couldn't do and overcame a holding call. (The Bengals had one on right tackle Bobby Hart.) The Colts spread it out for a 12-yard underneath pass to Ebron before he burned Evans on the TD Luck lofted down the right side with 12:02 left in the half for a 10-3 lead.
The Bengals got the running game going, but they didn't have it enough with Mixon getting 55 yards on just six carries.