CINCINNATI — With just less than two minutes to go in Thursday night's preseason finale, the Cincinnati Bengals appeared poised to escape with a last-minute victory over the Indianapolis Colts after Bengals quarterback Keith Wenning found wide receiver Alonzo Russell on a slant play for a go-ahead touchdown.
After the extra point, Cincinnati had taken a 10-6 lead, thanks to its 11-play, 73-yard drive that took 5:27 off the clock.
When the Colts' offense took the field with 1:55 remaining in the game, Stephen Morris had one simple message for his teammates in the huddle.
"I just told them, 'Let's make plays and execute,'" Morris said. "I was just telling those guys to just focus on one play at a time. You know, just do your job (for) one play, and let's just move down the field."
Thanks to some well-placed and well-executed plays, the Colts' offense was able to slowly move the ball down the field and get out of bounds on the next few plays, saving timeouts in the process.
Three plays into the drive, Morris found wide receiver MeKale McKay down the ride side of the field for a 23-yard play to get into Cincinnati territory at the 48. Five plays a later, a pass interference call on the Bengals gave the Colts a 1st and 10 at the Bengals' 30-yard line.
After a short pass play to Tevaun Smith and an incompletion, Morris and the Colts' offense got the presnap look they wanted, and decided to go with a jailbreak screen play to Smith.
"They brought a zero blitz and our guys picked it up," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. "Stephen made a great throw, and (Smith made) a great run after the catch."
Smith took the screen pass, and after running into brief traffic at the beginning, used huge blocks from his offensive linemen and tight end Mo Alie-Cox to coast into the end zone from 25 yards out. After the extra point, the Colts had re-taken the lead, 13-10, with 47 seconds left.
Indianapolis' defense would hang on from there to claim the victory over Cincinnati.
Morris and the Colts' offense showed they could respond right back to the Bengals' second-to-last offensive drive, putting together a nine-play, 75-yard drive that took just 1:15 off the clock
The eventual game-winning play, he said, was well designed and executed.
"Well, we noticed they were playing zero down there a lot, and instead of just trying to throw it up, let's just get a quick-hitter out there and see what happens," Morris said. "And the O-line responded great and had a couple of crucial blocks, and I think (Tevaun) did the rest."
The drive featured two Colts players in Morris and Smith who have put together outstanding overall preseason performances.
Photos from the final preseason game of the 2016 season.
Morris finished his preseason having completed 39-of-61 passes (64 percent) for four touchdowns and one interception, for a quarterback rating of 142.3.
That one interception — which came in the end zone as the Colts' offense was driving at the end of the first half — was the only real blip in his performance on Thursday. Overall against the Bengals, Morris completed 20-of-30 passes for 217 yards in just more than a half of play.
"Good. It could be better, though," Morris said when asked to evaluate his own play in the preseason. "You're always going to look at it with a tough eye, and you want to grade yourself really hard. But you did some good things and you did some things that you're not too happy (about) — for example, that pick at the end of the (first) half. You've just got to do better at that and grow from there."
Smith, meanwhile, caught four total passes for 45 yards and the aforementioned 25-yard touchdown on Thursday against the Bengals.
For the preseason, the undrafted rookie out of Iowa caught 10 total passes for 138 yards and two scores.
Smith is a prime candidate for the Colts' final one or two spots at wide receiver come Week 1, alongside Chester Rogers and McKay.
"Real badly," Smith said, when asked about his desire to make the Colts' final roster. "I know if it doesn't work out here, hopefully it works out somewhere else. You're not only playing for one team; it's your interview for any other team in the NFL. So if it doesn't work out here — hopefully it does — all I know I worked by butt off, and only God can control everything else."
Pagano said guys like Morris and Smith have given the coaching staff, as well as general manager Ryan Grigson and his staff, some tough decisions by 4 p.m. Saturday, when the team is required to cut down from 75 to 53 players on the active roster.
"That's what we asked them to do, is to take advantage of this opportunity," Pagano said. "They were all going to get (a) significant amount of playing time, and they knew that, and we just asked them, 'Hey look: you let it rip tonight. There's no reason to hold anything back, and don't worry about making mistakes. Just go play hard and play fast and have fun, and when the clock ticks zero and we've got to make these tough decisions, then let the chips fall where they fall. But leave it all on the line tonight.'"