The Bengals defense made its first turnover of the season count, not to mention make Colts fans wonder just how far away the Peyton Manning era is, when they struck fast and first in Thursday's preseason finale at Paul Brown Stadium.
But it didn't hold up when then Colts found a way to win despite having the ball just 23 minutes. Quarterback Dan Orlovsky's seven-yard pass to wide receiver Taj Smith with 1:08 left beat the Bengals, 17-13, and completed a 75-yard drive that took just 1:59.
With the Bengals holding the ball for more than 34 of the game's first 53 minutes, backup quarterbacks Bruce Gradkowski and Dan LeFevour led scoring drives of at least 7:12. The last one yielded Mike Nugent's 24-yard field goal with 6:19 left in the game on a drive highlighted by running back Cedric Peerman's slashing, second-effort on a 13-yard run into the red zone that converted a third-and-five.
But it was the defense, ranging from the first and third teams, that carried the night until the very end and very nearly kept the Colts out of the end zone before 39,797. At the two-minute warning the Bengals had hogged the ball for 35 minutes and had held the Colts to 36 yards rushing.
With the backups swarming early in the fourth quarter and linebackers DeQuin Evans and Dan Skuta making two goal-line stops to force a fourth-and-goal, the Colts tied the game at 10 on running back Darren Evans' one-yard run with 13:31 left in the game before the Bengals answered with LeFevour's 15-play drive to set up Nugent's field goal.
Cincinnati buried quarterback Kerry Collins and his first offensive line, holding the Colts to two yards on six carries in a first half the Bengals pummeled Indy on 205 yards to 34, and held Collins to 5-of-10 passing for 45 yards before he left late in the first half.
Defensive tackle Pat Sims, in his first game since coming back from a knee injury earlier this week, came up with two tackles for loss in the running game against center Jeff Saturday, free safety Taylor Mays made a couple of nice stops before he left with a knee injury after racing across the field to chase down Smith, and the rookie Evans greeted Collins' replacement rudely when he sacked Orlovsky from the blind side.
Mays recovered from a tough start. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis wanted to find out about his young secondary players when he sat all four starters and so, apparently, did Collins because in his first snap with his new team Collins pulled out a play-action fake and saw backup wide receiver David Gilreath badly beating Mays down the middle.
Mays never waited to see the ball and clawed at Gilreath's arms for a 44-yard pass interference penalty, which put the ball on the Bengals 10. But tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins ganged up on running back Donald Brown for a two-yard gain, right end Michael Johnson hit Collins' arm for an incompletion and cornerback Morgan Trent stopped Smith short of the first down to force Adam Vinatieri's 23-yard field goal that gave the Colts a 3-0 lead.
Then Michael Johnson completed his night-long torture of rookie left tackle Anthony Castonzo on the next series. He blew by him for the second time in the game and this time he tipped the ball out of Collins' hand and left end Frostee Rucker recovered the fumble at the Colts 46.
That ignited two monstrous drives for the offense as backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski hit his first 10 passes in a controlled passing game that kept the ball for 22 of the half's 30 minutes. Johnson's forced fumble turned into Nugent's tying 25-yard field goal on a drive that featured running back Brian Leonard as he finished with 57 yards on 11 carries and two catches for nine yards.
Gradkowski's first incompletion came when Peerman dropped a wide-open ball in the middle of the field, but Peerman had a nice half with three catches for 24 yards and was one of seven receivers Gradkowski found.
After a tough first three games, Gradkowski finished the half 13-of-16 for 83 yards as the Colts took away the deep ball with their deep cover two zone.
"Its preseason, not my first preseason, but it's my first TD drive as a Bengal, and it feels good," Gradkowski said. "I think it shows how we're all starting to get a feel for each other. The way Jay (Gruden) calls plays, what guys like and how to get into a rhythm. I think you're seeing a lot of hard work coming together."
Gradkowski led a 7:17 drive of 13 plays in which he ran for three yards for one first down and converted a 3rd-and-four from the Colts 10 on a nine-yard pass to wide receiver Calvin Russell to set up Peerman's one-yard touchdown run with 4:59 left in the half that gave the Bengals a 10-3 lead.
Rookie tight end Colin Cochart, who sunk his pads and bulled for a first down on a third-and-three pass in the field-goal drive, had a good block on the touchdown run. He went to the locker room with the trainers early in the second half holding his left arm, but reports said he was fine and was just suffering from cramps.
The Bengals preseason headache—the turnover—tripped up their offense in the red zone when rookie wide receiver A.J. Green fumbled at the Colts 9 for his team's ninth turnover of the preseason.
It spoiled a 12-play 74-yard drive with a solid mix of run and pass. Quarterback Andy Dalton kept it going against a defense consisting mainly of the Colts backups when he hit wide receiver Jordan Shipley running to across to the sidelines for a 20-yard pickup and the right side of the line blew out a big hole that fullback Chris Pressley finished off with a block on outside linebacker Pat Angerer for Leonard's 10-yard run.
The Bengals then drove into the red zone when Leonard converted a third-and-two with a nine-yard burst to the right on a power play where left guard Nate Livings pulled and put the ball on the Colts 14.
But it got gummed up in the red zone. On second-and-eight, Dalton had tight end Jermaine Gresham breaking down the seam into the end zone, but he threw it high and behind him and Gresham could only get his left hand on it.
Then on the next snap Dalton hit Green on a quick slant far short of the first down. When Green tried to make a move and reverse field, he lost the ball and Angerer carried it out to his 32.
With 5:42 left in the first quarter, that ended the night for the first offense and Dalton went to the sidelines 6-of-9 passing for 43 yards. He had a couple of misfires (he also was wide and high to Shipley on a ball over the middle), but he also had the rope to Shipley and a scramble for five yards.
"I didn't know exactly how much I would play, but I knew it would be shorter than the other games," Dalton said. "I think it was about right for this game. I feel good. I feel ready to go. I'm looking forward to Cleveland."
The defense continued to melt down the Colts in the second half. Evans recovered a fumble forced by backup middle linebacker Dan Skuta, putting the Bengals in the plus category for turnovers for the first time in a game this season.
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, looking for a spot either on the roster or the practice squad, pulled off the Bengals' longest kick return of the season when he took a punt 33 yards in the third quarter.
"Offensively, we went into the game wanting to run the ball some," Lewis said at the half. "We got some of those plays called and executed them pretty well. Obviously, though, you want to eliminate that turnover. Defensively, other than one ball, we continue to play pretty well with the guys who are in there. Now it's just time to lock it down and be ready when it counts."
PREGAME NOTES: With decisions to be made in the secondary for Saturday's roster cutdown to 53, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis sat his starting secondary for Thursday's preseason finale against the Colts at Paul Brown Stadium.
Taylor Mays, in his second week with the club, got the nod at free safety in place of Reggie Nelson, and Gibril Wilson, in his second game back from an ACL rehab, started at strong safety in place of Chris Crocker. Wilson and Mays are involved in a heated battle for the two or three spots behind Crocker and Nelson that also includes first-year player Jeromy Miles and fifth-rounder Robert Sands.
There is also a heated scrum at cornerback, where starters Nate Clements and Leon Hall were sitting and Morgan Trent (at left) and Jonathan Wade (at right) started. Trent and Wade figure to have a good shot at making it, but it is the guys behind them that were slated to get plenty of work and scrutiny, such as Brandon Ghee, David Pender, Rico Murray and seventh-rounder Korey Lindsey.
Also sitting was backup running back Bernard Scott. In his first game back from hamstring problems last week, Scott went off for 63 yards on six carries. But with starter Cedric Benson in an Austin, Texas, jail and not knowing if the NFL is going to discipline him, the Bengals may want to make sure Scott's hamstring is fully healthy.
Left end Robert Geathers also got the night off and was replaced by Frostee Rucker.
For the Colts, veteran quarterback Kerry Collins, lured out of retirement 10 days ago, was scheduled to make his first appearance but his receivers were not. He was behind the first offensive line, but wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon and tight end Dallas Clark were out.
The Colts defensive starters, except for free safety Antoine Bethea, were lined up to start, making this the most unique of the Bengals-Colts games that have ended the last nine preseasons, Usually Indianapolis plays two or three of therir 22 starters at the most.
Also not expected to play for the Bengals because of injuries were cornerback Adam Jones (neck), linebacker Dontay Moch (foot), linebacker Keith Rivers (wrist), linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy (Achilles), guard Otis Hudson (knee), defensive tackle Jason Shirley (calf), tight end Bo Scaife (shoulder) and left end Carlos Dunlap (knee).
Cornerback Kelly Jennings didn't arrive until after Tuesday's practice following the trade from Seattle and was ruled out by Lewis.