Colts at Bengals: What to watch for Thursday night

Robert Turbin #33 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on October 16, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ preseason game against the Bengals Thursday night at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium.

  • Kickoff: 7 p.m.
  •  Broadcast: FOX59

Caught in a draft?: The NFL is one of the true meritocracies. Individuals earn their playing time and roster spot. But there are exceptions, particularly when it comes to earning spot when preseason rosters are pared from 90 to 53.

The deadline for rosters to be cut to 53 is 4 p.m. Saturday, and the Colts undoubtedly face some difficult decisions. That includes whether to stick with a draft pick who has yet to emerge as expected, or move on.

“At some level it would be unrealistic to say that draft choices don’t get a little more consideration,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “I mean, that’s just the way it is in the league. In talking with Chris (Ballard) here, we weigh production on the field for rookies probably more than most teams and draft status isn’t an automatic shoe-in in this organization.

“Chris has made that clear to me from day one and I appreciate that mentality. So, we feel good about our draft picks, but . . . you’ve got to earn it.’’

Seven of eight picks from Ballard’s first draft survived the regular-season cut to 53. The outlier: offensive tackle Zach Banner, a fourth-rounder.

The majority of this year’s draft class has nothing to worry about (sixth-round wideout Deon Cain is on IR with a knee injury). However, fifth-round wideout Reece Fountain has done little to separate himself from others vying for the fourth and fifth slots. Also, it’s anyone’s guess whether a pair of seven-round linebackers – Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin – has done enough to stick around.

Uncertainty might follow defensive end Tarell Basham into the final game. The 2017 third-round pick had a modest rookie season – 7 tackles and 2 sacks in 15 games – and is in the midst of a quiet preseason, other than a blocked punt against Baltimore. Our guess is Ballard isn’t ready to give up on Basham.

As Reich insisted, it’s always important for players to make a good last impression. That includes Fountain, who has one catch for 14 yards in the preseason.

“Thursday night is going to be important for him,’’ Reich said. “He’s right in the mix and should go out there with the mindset that he’s going to go out there and show what he can do on Thursday night to make this roster.’’

Tackle troubles: Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the Colts still are having issues at right tackle. They’ve used the preseason as an audition at the position, bouncing from J’Marcus Webb (at Seattle), to Braden Smith (Baltimore) to Austin Howard (San Francisco). Thursday at Cincy? Joe Haeg, c’mon down.

“I probably thought we would’ve had a right tackle by now,’’ Reich admitted.

Howard flamed out against the 49ers, lasting just three plays and allowing a sack before being replaced. Denzelle Good saw extensive time in the second half, but exited with an injury to his left knee.

We all expected the offensive line to finally be an area of strength, especially with the free-agent acquisition of Howard (88 career starts) and addition of left guard Quenton Nelson with the sixth overall pick in the draft. But left tackle Anthony Castonzo’s lingering hamstring injury – he vows to be ready for the Sept. 9 opener against Cincinnati – and the mess at right tackle have changed that.

Turbin’s back, for now: Enjoy Robert Turbin while you can. The veteran running back is expected to play against the Bengals, then go away for a month. He’s been suspended for the first four games of the regular season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy.

Turbin, who has developed into one of the NFL’s premier situational backs, played in the preseason opener at Seattle – six carries for 27 yards, two receptions for 18 yards – before suffering an ankle injury.

“Anytime you get an opportunity to play, you look forward to that opportunity,’’ he said. “I’m just going to do whatever’s asked of me.’’

Normally, rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins would play extensively in the preseason finale. However, the iffy status of Marlon Mack (hamstring) for the opener and Turbin’s suspension might convince the Colts to lean heavily on Turbin and Branden Oliver, and less on Hines, Wilkins and Christine Michael.

According to Reich, Turbin “needs to play because he is on the roster. He’s like everybody else. He needs to earn it, and we need to see him. We all have got something to prove every day.’’

Keep the streak going: For those keeping track at home, the Colts and Bengals are meeting for the 27th time in the preseason, and the 18th straight time. They’ve been paired in the preseason finale every year since 2003.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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