INDIANAPOLIS —The Indianapolis Colts on Thursday hope to enter the regular season with some real momentum, as they play host to the Cincinnati Bengals in both teams' 2017 preseason finale at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Colts (1-2) earned their first win of the preseason on Saturday, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 19-15, at Heinz Field.
The Bengals, meanwhile, are also 1-2 this preseason, having defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 23-12, in Week 1 before falling to the Kansas City Chiefs (30-12) and the Washington Redskins (23-17).
So what should fans be looking for when the Colts take the field for their preseason finale on Thursday?
1. 90 To 53
The fact that Thursday's game is the preseason finale for the Colts means that it is also the final time the team will have its 90-man offseason roster for the rest of the year. By Saturday at 4 p.m., the Colts and every other team across the league must cut their rosters down to their 53-man regular-season editions. So for those still fighting for one of those final roster spots — and there's competition at just about each position group — Thursday's game against Cincinnati represents one final opportunity to impress their coaches so that, come Monday, they'll be back at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center starting to prepare for Indy's regular season opener Sept. 10 against the Los Angeles Rams.2. Three's Company
Traditionally, the third preseason game has been used as a "dress rehearsal" for teams, meaning their starters play about a half, and then sit for the fourth game to rest and avoid any potential injuries. But Colts head coach Chuck Pagano confirmed this week that all three of the team's quarterbacks — Scott Tolzien, Stephen Morris and Phillip Walker — will play in Thursday's preseason finale against the Bengals. Both Tolzien and Morris are coming off their best performances of the preseason so far against the Steelers, so the hope is for that momentum to continue rolling into the Bengals game, and then right into the regular season.3. Take It Away (Again)
While it's unknown how much playing time members of the first-team Colts' defense will get on Thursday, one theme for the entire unit this entire preseason has been its ability to create takeaways. Through its three games so far, the Indy defense has caused five turnovers — three on fumbles and two on interceptions — and had another two last week against the Steelers, as John Simon's strip sack led to a recovery by Hassan Ridgeway, while Chris Milton was able to pick off a Pittsburgh pass — in the end zone, no less — late in the game. With so much on the line for several members of the Colts' defense on Thursday, look for even more of an effort to get that ball back for the offense.4. Fourth Down Army 2.0?
While competition remains high for just about every spot on the Colts' depth chart heading into the preseason finale, three spots — at kicker, punter and long snapper — appear to be wrapped up. While Adam Vinatieri was always going to be the choice at kicker, Indianapolis this week decided to go with rookie Rigoberto Sanchez at punter and Luke Rhodes at long snapper moving forward. The three will use Thursday's game as one final tune-up for the regular season, which includes Sanchez as the kickoff specialist, punter and holder.5. Building Depth
Not only is Thursday's game a chance for several players to make the final roster, but it's a prime opportunity for some to get in more valuable reps as they fill-in for more established starters who have suffered injuries that could lead to them missing the start of the regular season. At center, Deyshawn Bond and Adam Redmond will likely continue snapping in place of Ryan Kelly, who is out with a foot injury; veteran Brian Schwenke, who was moved off the PUP list last week, could also make his debut for the Colts on Thursday. At tight end, Darrell Daniels and Brandon Williams could be names to watch to fill in for Mo Alie-Cox, who is still week-to-week after undergoing a knee scope a couple weeks back. Then there's cornerback, where the team's top player at the position, Vontae Davis, will also be week-to-week with a groin injury; look for a variety of players, including Rashaan Melvin, rookies Quincy Wilson and Nate Hairston and veterans Chris Culliver and Corey White, among others, to try to fill that void until Davis is able to return.6. Keep Movin'
The Colts had difficulty converting third downs their first two preseason games, turning just 5-of-30 of those opportunities into first downs against the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys. But that trend started turning the right way against the Steelers last week, as Indy's offense was 5-of-11 on its attempts on third down, and it resulted in five total scoring drives (two touchdowns and three field goals). The correlation is obvious: teams that move the chains score more points. Can the Colts do even better against the Bengals?7. Bend But Don't Break
Conversely, the Colts' defense allowed the Steelers' offense to convert half of its third down opportunities last week (7-of-14 in all), but Indy's ability to create timely takeaways or bat down big passes near the end zone helped keep Pittsburgh off the scoreboard for the most part. After the game, Pagano stressed the importance of better tackling, especially in the secondary, so that the opposing offense has much more difficulty getting those conversions in the first place. This will certainly be something to watch on Thursday against Cincinnati.