In an effort to walk a line between settling the last spot at some positions and keeping their starters and regulars healthy for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener, the Bengals' split squad lost to the Colts, 13-6, in Thursday night's pre-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium when the Colts threw running back Quinton Flowers for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-one from the Indy one with 3:17 left.
The first half was marred by rookie running back Rodney Anderson walking to the locker room after he limped off the field with a right knee injury following a four-yard run on his fifth carry of the night. That's a real concern given his college resume that includes three serious season-ending injuries and he just got back to practice two weeks ago after an 11-month rehab following reconstructive knee surgery for a torn ACL.
With No. 1 Andy Dalton and No. 2 Ryan Finley on the shelf for Seattle and Jeff Driskel out with a hamstring injury, undrafted rookie quarterback Jake Dolegala got the nod for every snap for the Bengals after last week's glittering debut and again showed off his big arm. But he couldn't produce a touchdown on four red-zone trips. He started fast, hitting nine of his first 11 passes and finished the first half 15 of 21 for 160 yards and a passer rating of 93.4. Three of those throws went for at least 21 yards, including a 39-yarder to wide receiver Cody Core.
But by the middle of the fourth quarter, Dolegala was 22 of 35 for 220 yards with a rating of 80.7 after failing to take advantage of two botched punt returns by the Colts. Dolegala wasn't exactly dealt aces. Only three wide receivers, veterans Cody Core and Josh Malone, and undrafted rookie Ventell Bryant, were available. And the Bengals' running game that has struggled all preseason did again behind a jumbled offensive line built only for a pre-season final. They had just 27 yards on their first 17 carries.
Bryant made a great pitch for the practice squad with nine catches for 83 yards and so did Flowers with 46 yards on six carries because it looked like he needed a big day to pass rookie Jordan Ellis.
But Dolegala got one more shot and the running game suddenly came alive when running back Quinton Flowers ripped off the team's two longest runs of the preseason on cut backs to his right for 19 and 17 yards respectively that put the ball on the Colts 22. Then the Bengals got the ball at the 6 when Colts cornerback Isaiah Langley tugged on Malone across the middle for a pass interference penalty.
Dolegala then found Flowers wide open in the left flat and flipped it to him before Flowers powered into the end zone. But tight end Mason Schreck was called for offensive pass interference even though it seemed like he was simply running his route. Another pitch to Flowers got them to the 1, but on fourth down the zone read went nowhere.
Dolegala's bid to make the roster ended on just 26 of 41 passes for 253 yards.
Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons put the heat on in a pre-season finale and some of his guys came up big. Cornerback Darius Phillips, who probably had the roster made before Thursday night's game, showed his stuff even though his 72-yard punt return for a touchdown was called back early in the third quarter. Phillips, a 2018 fifth-rounder who set the FBS record at Western Michigan with 12 return TDs that included one punt return, burst through the middle and executed a nice tip-toe escape down the left sideline to finish it off.
But one guy on the roster bubble didn't help himself on that play when safety Trayvon Henderson was called for an illegal block in the back on the play to wipe it all out. But when a hold on Alex Redmond (scheduled to go all the way at left guard) blew up a Bengals drive, another bubble guy, cornerback Davontae Harris, forced a fumble with a hit on Colts returner Penny Hart. Rookie long snapper Dan Godsil recovered his second botched punt of the game, this one on the Colts 25.
Check out some of the best photos from preseason week four as the Bengals host the Indianapolis Colts.
But Dolegala couldn't find his receivers as easily as he did last week and they got nothing out of the turnover when rookie Tristan Vizcaino sliced a 37-yard try wide right.
Harris later left the game when it looked like he got his bell rung
The Colts then made the Bengals pay for a turnover. Guard-tackle John Jerry, who figures to be one of the first eight offensive linemen in the roster, moved out to left tackle to get the start and allowed two sacks to right end Carroll Phillips. The second resulted in a sack and strip of Dolegala off his blindside that gave the Colts the ball at the Bengals 16 and set up a 30-yard field goal from Cole Hedlund with 6:53 left in the third quarter that gave the Colts a 10-3 lead.
On their next-to-last drive of the first half, Dolegala rifled a 22-yard pass over the middle and got a terrific leaping catch from Malone as he seemingly scraped the ball off linebacker Zaire Franklin's helmet. But the drive stalled when Dolegala threw an incompletion between two receivers and Vizcaino hit the right upright on a 55-yard field goal try.
Is Dolegala giving them something to think about for the 53-man roster cutdown on Saturday? He clicked on his first third down try with a 17-missile over the middle to undrafted rookie Ventell Bryant, one of just four wide receivers to dress. But on the next third down when he went over the middle to Bryant again, he threw it low behind him for an incompletion. He was good in the first half, but not as consistent last week.
The Bengals, with their stitched-up offensive line, could do nothing on their first three series even though rookie long snapper Dan Godsil recovered a fumbled punt at the Colts 31, forced from rapid down-field coverage by rookie middle linebacker Germaine Pratt and tight end Cethan Carter.
John Jerry, who figures to be one of the eight offensive linemen with a spot, started at left tackle, next to guard Alex Redmond, rookie center Keaton Sutherland, right guard Brad Lundblade and right tackle Justin Evans. One pre-season theme, the lack of a punch in the running game, Anderson lost two yards on his first four carries, the fourth one coming on fourth-and-two from the Colts 23 following the recovered punt. There was no room for Anderson up the middle and Anderson had to lean back and recover his fumble.
Jerry did give up a sack to right end Carroll Phillips, but Dolegala had pretty good time the rest of the half.
Defensively, the Bengals started only two starters in nose tackle Andrew Billings and linebacker Jordan Evans and they played a couple of series before giving way. Other regulars, such as Pratt and left end Kerry Wynn, as well as players expected to make the roster like cornerbacks Tony McRae and Darius Phillips, got starts. Phillips had a nice pick when he high-pointed Chad Kelly's underthrown bomb to wide receiver Parris Campbell at the Bengals 5.
Cincinnati turned that into a 22-yard field goal by Vizcaino for their first points off a turnover in the preseason. The big play was Dolegala's 26-yard throw to a leaping Bryant at the Colts 10, but they couldn't jam it in from there. There was no room on the ground again (three yards on their first eight carries) and when Dolegala got flushed out of pocket he couldn't hook up with well-covered Malone on the sideline in the end zone.
The Colts scored on Kelly's seven-yard scramble that capped a drive ignited by rookie wider receiver Parris Campbell's 31-yard-catch-and run through the middle of the secondary.
Maybe head coach Zac Taylor sent a message about the linebackers corps even before he sent out his captains. Four of the captains figure to make the roster as backups in Jerry, Billings, Carter and cornerback Tony McRae. Hardy Nickerson, who made the club the last two seasons as a backup is thought to be on the bubble like most of the backers, also went out as a captain.