Luck got most of his action in warmups
The fourth and final preseason game is usually reserved for roster evaluation purposes with starters seeing little action. Teams must trim their rosters to 53 players by Friday evening so this game is the last chance for the Colts staff to get a good look at those guys at the end of the bench. For many that don't make the cut, tonight's game will likely be the end of their NFL dream.
As expected, Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne took a seat early with most offensive starters joining them shortly thereafter. Most defensive starters played longer than their offensive counterparts but we still got an extended look at guys contending for backup and special teams jobs.
Whose stock climbed and whose fell? Who were this week's biggest winners and losers?
Before the 2012 season began Jerry Hughes was teetering precipitously on the edge of becoming one of the biggest draft busts in Colts history. During the preseason he's among the league leaders in sacks and is one of the best tacklers on the roster.
The Jerry Hughes reclamation project has been a resounding success and the results were on full display against the Bengals.
Hughes again looked lively with a couple of tackles and lots of pressure. He was consistently pursuing the ball and had the looks of an every-down outside linebacker. He played most of the game, showed very good conditioning and made a strong case to start opposite Robert Mathis.
Perhaps the suggestion is sacrilegious given the number of years Dwight Freeney has held court as the preeminent pass-rusher in Indianapolis. Don't be surprised if the Colts ask quite a bit from Hughes this season.
The team said they wanted to keep Dwight Freeney when they began rebuilding the defense. They didn't mean it and it's clear tonight that his time is coming to a painful, sad end. He didn't dress for the game and although the team will say they wanted to give him some rest, there's an even better explanation: they didn't need to see him on the field to know his time is over.
With a hefty salary cap hit, Freeney was impossible to trade so the team quietly soldiered on. Attempting to turn him into an outside linebacker seemed reasonable but so far he's been entirely ineffective. Meanwhile, Jerry Hughes took advantage of the transition period and, in doing so, made Dwight Freeney something worse than expendable: an afterthought.
The team will say the right things, give Freeney his snaps until it becomes obvious that he's not working out at OLB and at the end of the season let the team's all-time sack leader walk out the door. Perhaps he'll have a remarkable turnaround and change this situation. At this point, it seems unlikely, however.
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson was asked to do the impossible: jettison Peyton Manning and most of the roster, eat the cap hit and find a way to build a competitive team.
Digging deep into the scrap pile he found a few gems, made a few bets and found a way to field a team that will certainly be better than the 2-14 campaign that ended his predecessor's long reign in Indianapolis.
Let's not sugar-coat this: the roster is very thin on talent at key positions. This team will not likely win many games as a result of that talent shortage. They have talent at the right spots to build a very successful team in the long-run, however, and for that, Grigson should be lauded.
Tonight, many of Grigson's risk-free trades, free-agent signings and surprise draft picks made the team. A talented, albeit banged-up, group of wide receivers looks to be capable of growing with Andrew Luck.
In the future, they have the potential to be a potent weapon for the Colts. Vick Ballard looks to be an absolute steal at this point. Former Eagle Moises Fokou put an underscore beneath his case to make the team. None cost more than the men they replaced.
That's not to say Grigson has hit on every selection, trade or signing. Winston Justice looks to be an unmitigated disaster. He's been a dangerously weak in pass protection. Josh Gordy was horrible tonight.
The beauty of Grigson's roster is this: they're cheap and easily replaced since the Colts are first in line for waivers. None of Grigson's moves will be much of a burden on the team financially. They were virtually risk-free. Those that don't work out will be replaced by guys who simply can't be any worse.
Not all of Grigson's trades worked out
One of Ryan Grigson's biggest flops looks to be cornerback Josh Grady. Granted, he won't put a big dent in the team's plans but he was expected to compete for quality playing time when he came from St. Louis in a trade.
Tonight, Grady was absolutely embarrassed. He looked lost, often was caught looking in the backfield and gave up an easy touchdown.
Bengal's quarterback Bruce Gradkowski abused Gordy, picking on his side of the field consistently. If a backup quarterback playing a vanilla offense destroys Gordy, I worry what will happen in the regular season. His lone highlight was a fumble recovery but that's hardly a marketable skill.
After his performance tonight, I can't imagine a rational reason for the team to have if him on the roster next week.
Adams might just stick with the Colts
Kris Adams has had a whirlwind tour of NFL teams during his career. He's not managed to stick anywhere, although many were allured by his size and quickness. The knock was that he played small and couldn't run routes.
Through most of the preseason, the media has built up Adams' performance during practice only to see him shrink during game. During the first three preseason games, there were tantalizing clues he might put it all together, and tonight against the Bengals, he finally did just that.
While his routes were sloppy, his solid outing eased Adams off the bubble. He dramatically improved his chances to make this team by showing he could be an effective deep threat. While he's not a lock at this point, I'd be surprised if he's doesn't make the roster.
Delone Carter has only five carries during a preseason plagued by injuries. With a reputation as a bruiser with terrific potential and a knack for fumbling, he also appears to have fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. Tonight Deji Karim and Darren Evans got the bulk of the work after Donald Brown and Vick Ballard took a seat early.
It's unlikely that the team carries Carter unless they jettison both Karim and Evans. Karim appears to have the inside track as he got quite a bit of work in the backfield and took some snaps with special teams.
Evans has shown a good nose for the end zone during the preseason too, although he didn't help his cause with a late fumble. Still both Karim and Evans got the shot at significant play while Carter once again faded from view.
Perhaps Delone Carter surprisingly makes the roster but it seems to be a long-shot at this point.
After losing Pat Angerer for six weeks to injury, it's a bit of a shock to believe the remaining inside linebackers would be a bright spot for a defense that has struggled. Instead, Kavell Conner, Jerrell Freeman and Moises Fokou have had a terrific preseason.
What's particularly impressive is that inside linebackers need solid defensive line play to get to the passer in most scenarios. Nose tackle play has been mediocre, sometimes even poor.
Somehow the inside linebackers have been remarkably effective in A-gap blitzes as well as tackling. Tonight, Moises Fokou racked up a rather Angerer-like double-digit tackle night before calling it a night.
Once again, GM Ryan Grigson has proved his meddle by finding some low-cost, highly-effective players who clearly will make some plays in this 3-4 defensive scheme.
Generally speaking, new head coach Chuck Pagano has had an impressive start to his career in Indianapolis. His fiery demeanor and tough-guy mentality has instilled a sense of confidence and pride in this young team.
His approach to defense has begun to show flashes of brilliance along with maddening periods of inconsistency. Overall, he's been exactly the kind of change-of-pace the team needed after Jim Caldwell's staid turn at the helm.
What the Colts failed at tonight was discipline. The team made uncharacteristic mental mistakes that never marred Tony Dungy's teams.
While neither team was sharp, the Colts can't post more than 10 penalties, most avoidable, and win many games. They're not good enough for a shootout or a blowout. If they are to win, they can't give away yards.