The Bengals benched virtually all their starters in Thursday night's capper, but they still couldn't get to Saturday's final cut without injuries impacting the roster even as they took a 20-7 half-time lead over the Colts at Paul Brown Stadium despite injuries to back-up quarterback Matt Barkley and H-Back Cethan Carter.
The Bengals went through pre-season finale déjà vu when they lost Barkley with a left knee injury on the game's second series and turned to Jeff Driskel to finish off a touchdown drive capped off by running back Tra Carson's one-yard touchdown for a 7-0 lead 8:16 into the first quarter.
It was Driskel who got hurt in last year's finale against the Colts when he broke his hand early in the second quarter during his first series and missed the first half of the season. A year later he came into this game in what was characterized as a "neck-and-neck competition," in an all-or-nothing battle for the No. 2 job.
Driskel may have won it this year, but it's not by TKO because he put on a blazing show Thursday that included a microwave 13-play touchdown drive in 2:10 that consumed 85 yards and nded with two seconds on the first half clock when he hit wide receiver Josh Malone in the left corner of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown pass. That's a nice book-end to his winning 33-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Auden Tate with 2:04 left in the pre-season opener against the Bears.
Driskel hit 10 of his last 12 passes while finishing the half 14 of 20 for 116 yards and a 101.2 passer rating. In the drive Driskel deftly used two timeouts and his alert spike with 13 seconds left at the 20 ended a string of nine straight completions.
Naturally he went to his man Tate to get it all going. He hit him on the sidelines for a 26-yarder on third-and-11 from the Bengals 14. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis had seen enough and went with No. 4 QB Logan Woodside to start the second half.
Barkley started Thursday and got victimized by a beautiful long ball dropped by wide receiver John Ross at the Colts 3. Just like Sunday in Buffalo, Ross sped by the secondary and was open, but this time he couldn't fend off an arm grabbing him and he juggled the ball before dropping it.
Then the luckless Barkley hit wide receiver Kermit Whitfield between the hashes to convert a third-and-13, but he dropped it. Barkley got hurt on the play and Colts end Kemoko Turay was called for roughing the passer.
Driskel then finished off a drive that began when Bengals end Carl Lawson, the only regular to play significant snaps Thursday, caused a fumble recovered by linebacker Brandon Bell. Driskel picked up seven yards on a scramble and they got 10 more on the next snap when rookie running back Mark Walton bolted 10 yards off left tackle right to set up his touchdown. That series was the best the Bengals have looked running the ball all preseason with six carries for 40 yards running behind a patchwork offensive line of (left to right), Jake Fisher at tackle, Christian Westerman at guard, Trey Hopkins at center, T.J. Johnson at guard and Cedric Ogbuehi at tackle.
Carson looked ready to solidify that fourth and final running back spot with Walton, Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard. He picked up a first down in the passing game on third-and-seven when that's exactly what he got on a check-down pass in the middle of the field at the Colts 7 and then Carson got six on the ground behind Ogbuehi before bucking over the middle for the score.
Another fumble recovery set up another touchdown when new Colts quarterback Phillip Walker fouled up his first snap when he and running back Branden Oliver failed to connect on a handoff and middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson was right there, went to the ground, scooped it up like first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has been preaching and ran it to the Colts two.
This is why the coaches love Nickerson, a second-year undrafted free agent that thrives on smarts and reliability while always being in the right place and why he'll probably take the last backer spot opened by Vontaze Burfict's four-game suspension to start the season.
Walton ended up punching it in from the 1 on the second try after the fumble, but it was a costly scrum. On the first play Carter got hurt and that may shift the roster like the Barkley injury. It looked like Carter, a second-year guy that became a special teams staple for coordinator Darrin Simmons as a rookie, had been in a tight race with veteran Ryan Hewitt for the fourth and final tight end spot. With Hewitt taking just 10 snaps in the previous two games, it looked like they were leaning to Carter's athleticism on special teams.
A false start on rookie guard Brad Lundblade turned Jon Brown's extra point into a 38-yarder and Brown hooked it for his first miss of any kind this season. That gave them a 13-7 lead.
After Austin took over a defense that finished tied for generating the second fewest turnovers in the NFL last season, he has emphasized stealing the ball. The two first-half turnovers jacked their pre-season total to five. And they really had three because they stopped the Colts on fourth-and-one from the 50 with rookie linebacker Malik Jefferson coming down hill to stop Oliver on a run to the Bengals' left.