INDIANAPOLIS —The Indianapolis Colts wrapped up their 2017 preseason on Thursday night with a 7-6 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium.
What's top of mind for the Colts, who finish the preseason at 2-2, as they head into the start of the regular season?
For those who think the fourth preseason game doesn't matter, tell that to the faces of the players and coaches on the field for the Colts and Bengals Thursday night.
Photo from the final preseason game of 2017
While several Colts starters didn't play in the game — guys like T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Frank Gore, Anthony Castonzo and most of the first-team defense — Thursday's game featured about 37 players that will be cut from the team come 4 p.m. Saturday, when the Colts are required to trim their roster from 90 to 53 players. These guys, and several others who might be considered "on the bubble" heading into the night, had one more opportunity to show what they can do, and that certainly matters a whole lot to them — and their families.
The Colts were able to even up their final 2017 preseason record at 2-2 in a game that didn't feature a whole lot of offense, but it did have several key defensive plays, especially from Indianapolis, that head coach Chuck Pagano and his staff can look at as certain positives when they get back to the team facility tomorrow.
Now comes perhaps the toughest part of the year: roster cuts. It's never fun to crush someone's dreams, but the good part is there are 31 other teams who are also watching and could be in need of their services. For the Colts, the task is to find the 53 best players possible heading into their regular season opener Sept. 10 against the Los Angeles Rams.
The Colts wanted more takeaways from their defense this season. How did the unit respond?
By taking the ball away from the opposing offense on its first drive of the game in three of its four preseason games this year.
It happened Week 1 against the Detroit Lions, thanks to a John Simon interception. Last Saturday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Simon came in and stripped the ball from quarterback Ben Roethelisberger, which was recovered by Hassan Ridgeway.
And on Thursday, Jeremiah George poked the ball out of the hands of wide receiver Kermit Whitfield, and safety Lee Hightower was there to pick it up and tip-toe in bounds before stepping out at the Cincinnati 39-yard line — again, on the Bengals' opening possession.
As it turned out, the Indy defense wasn't done, however.
At the 5:23 mark of the second quarter, nose tackle David Parry stripped the ball from running back Jarveon Williams, and Josh Boyd pounced on it at the Indianapolis 47-yard line.
The plays represented takeaways No. 6 and 7 for the Colts' defense this preseason. Now the task is to do it in the regular season; after ranking near the bottom of the league rankings in forcing turnovers last season, however, these plays by the defense are certainly a cause for optimism for defensive coordinator Ted Monachino's group.
PLAY OF THE GAME
It was the eventual game-winner for the Colts on Thursday night.
Down 6-0 and facing a 3rd and 9 with 12:30 left in the fourth quarter, rookie quarterback Phillip Walker, on a seven-step dropback, quickly pumped to his left towards wide receiver Justice Liggins.
Turns out Walker's instincts were right.
He quickly launched a perfectly-placed pass down the sideline back towards Liggins, who had one-on-one coverage from cornerback Bene Benwikere. Liggins was able to find the ball once he got into the end zone and perfectly time a dive towards the corner and snatch the ball with two hands, securing it to the ground for a 29-yard touchdown reception.
The ensuing extra point gave Indianapolis its 7-6 lead it wouldn't relinquish — thanks to two missed field goals by the Bengals the rest of the way.
Jeremiah George had himself a night on Thursday at inside linebacker for the Colts.
In all, the third-year Iowa State product tied for game-high honors with six tackles — one for a loss — and had that aforementioned forced fumble for the Indy defense.
He was a menace throughout the night, especially in the second half, for the Bengals' offense, and wraps up his preseason having collected eight tackles (one for a loss) with a forced fumble and a pass defensed, while also getting two special teams tackles.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
• JoJo Natson flashed on several occasions throughout Thursday's game — though his night was inches away from turning into a nightmare on more than one occasion. The speedy rookie hauled in a 51-yard pass from Stephen Morris in the second quarter, but would be stripped of the ball — which dribbled out of bounds. Then, he showed off the jets on the first play of the fourth quarter, this time on a punt return, which he took 31 yards to the Cincinnati 44. But, once again, he fumbled at the end of the play, and fortunately Tyson Graham Jr. was there to pick it up for Indy. Finally, Natson would muff a catch on a punt later in the fourth quarter, though once again, Earl Wolff IV was there to clean it up for him. Natson acknowleged his mistakes after the game, and now the Colts' coaches certainly face a tough decision about whether or not to keep the electric receiver/returner.
• Rigoberto Sanchez learned this week that he had won the Colts' punter competition after the team decided to release veteran Jeff Locke, who had been signed in free agency in March. The undrafted rookie Sanchez put in a quality performance in his first try as Indy's lone punter, punting eight times for 367 yards — for a 45.9-yard average — with three kicks inside the 20, which were well covered by the Colts. Good start for Sanchez.
• The Colts had three sacks on the night — plays by cornerback Corey White, outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and defensive end Jhaustin Thomas. For Mingo, the play represented his third sack of the preseason; perhaps things are really starting to click for the former first-round pick.
• On the penalty front, the Colts committed just three penalties for 33 yards, compared to 11 accepted penalties for 79 yards for the Bengals. This shows a great deal of discipline for much of Indianapolis' second and third teamers.
WHAT WENT WRONG
• Outside of Walker's touchdown pass to Liggins in the fourth quarter, third downs reared their ugly head for Indianapolis on Thursday. On offense, the Colts converted just 2-of-13 (15 percent) of their opportunities on third down, leading to just 50 offensive plays on the night compared to Cincinnati's 68.
• Tackling was an issue again at times for the Colts' defense, which allowed the Bengals to convert a couple long 3rd down opportunities. This was a bit of a theme for that unit throughout the preseason, though it did ultimately hang tough on its own end of the field for a second straight week; holding the opposition to no touchdowns, two field goals and two missed field goals is nothing to bat an eye at.
• Adam Vinatieri has been pretty much automatic throughout his entire career, especially with the Colts. But early in the second quarter, he would miss a 48-yard attempt wide left. The Colts' main special teamers — Vinatieri, Sanchez and long snapper Luke Rhodes — are still working out the kinks as far as their entire operation, so look for this to button up as the regular season gets underway.
• The Colts had five fumbles — though they didn't lose one of them. It's never good to put the ball on the turf, especially that many times. Then, Walker threw his first interception of the preseason at the 5:23 mark in the second quarter, when cornerback Tony McRae stepped in front of his pass and made an easy grab. The Colts' defense did a good job responding to the turnover, however, as the Bengals wouldn't score again before the end of the first half.
The following Colts players were injured during Thursday's game:
• Cornerback Chris Culliver (groin, did not return): Pagano did not give an update on Culliver after the game.
• Safety Ronald Martin: Martin appeared to be battling some leg cramps in the fourth quarter. No update from the team on his condition as of yet.* *The Colts had just acquired Martin on Monday in a trade with the New York Jets, who received long snapper Thomas Hennessy.
The regular season.
Yes, it's finally that time.
The Colts open up the 2017 season on the road Sept. 10 against the Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The game, which is set to kick off at 4:05 p.m. ET, is being televised on CBS.