In trying to find a scapegoat in the Bengals' predictable and heartbreaking loss to the Steelers in the Wild Card round of the 2015 playoffs, there are a number of things at which you can point a finger. It's convenient to blame the referees, bullying and goading by Steelers players and coaches and other gaffes outside of Cincinnati's control, but the truth is, the Bengals held much of the outcome of the game in their own hands.
Offensive inefficiency could shoulder the bulk of the blame, as AJ McCarron couldn't find any semblance of rhythm, the offensive line struggled and a subsequent deplorable showing from the running game led to zero first half points. The Bengals' defense kept them in the game by forcing the high-flying Steelers' offense to field goals on four of their five total scoring possessions.
In the second quarter, the Bengals were reeling a bit, as the defense had been on the field often. Needing a turnover from the defense, Cincinnati had a rare present given to them from Ben Roethlisberger drop in their lap. On a third-and-10 from the Bengals' 12-yard line, Big Ben dropped back and saw an open Antonio Brown. What he didn't see was a lurking Vincent Rey jumping the route eyeing a critical interception.
Rey is a guy coaches want on their team--particularly at linebacker. He's heady, rarely in the wrong spot and is a relatively sure-tackler. Unfortunately, he also embodies what is currently lacking in the position group--coverage ability and overall athleticism. Roethlisberger put one right on Rey, ultimately hitting him in the facemark with the pass, but he couldn't grab it. The two uber-emotional defenders, Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones, pantomimed their displeasure after Rey dropped the interception, as the Steelers caught a break and lined up for a field goal they would eventually make.
With the media obsessing over the final minute of the game, this was a critical play the Bengals needed to make so three points would be wiped off the board. Had Rey made the play, it not only would take the field goal away, but give the Bengals even more momentum heading into the locker room at halftime.
It is and was no secret that Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson had interviews lined up for head coaching vacancies with the 49ers and Browns on Sunday, but no one could really know exactly how much that would affect the Bengals' offense on Saturday night. Jackson did the best he could with a backup quarterback and continuing attrition with his offensive personnel, but issues reared their ugly head.
After an illegal helmet-to-the-head hit by Ryan Shazier on Giovani Bernard that knocked the versatile Bengals back out of the game, Jeremy Hill was the focal point on the running attack. After Cincinnati snagged momentum from a variety of events late in the fourth quarter, they decided to go for the two-point conversion after taking the lead on an A.J. Green touchdown reception.
Jackson dialed up a "jumbo package" formation and tried to catch the Steelers' defense off-guard with a swing pass to a back not necessarily known for his pass-catching prowess. The result didn't go the Bengals' way.
The loss of Bernard hurt the Bengals at two critical moments in the game: this two-point conversion try and Hill's fumble late in the game. Some have guessed the Bengals had practiced this play a number of times in this scenario, but it's likely that it was Bernard used as the back. Weirdly, A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones were all not on the field during the play.
It was a good but a poor throw by McCarron. Seeing Cameron Heyward beat Clint Boling and essentially blowing up the play, McCarron threw it behind Hill to avoid an interception and potential two-point play going to Pittsburgh. Still, it took a near-miraculous one-handed catch to not have this play become a disaster after such a huge momentum swing that went their way.
Jackson should have fully recognized that the play wasn't going to work without Bernard in the lineup, and note his goal line weapon could be primed for the two-point conversion behind so many blockers in the formation. Like so many other times this season when plays Jackson called looked to offensive tackle Jake Fisher, the clever offensive coordinator might have out-thought himself here. The play also displayed incredibly poor blocking on a night it was prevalent from the often-dominant Bengals' front.
People can blame the questionable determination of penalizing the Bengals 30 yards on the final drive of the game, the officiating and/or the turnovers, but missed opportunities in other instances also helped to spell doom for Cincinnati. While five points on these two plays doesn't seem like a big deal at first blush, it definitely was a tough pill to swallow in a game where points were at a premium and the end score stood at 18-16.
While it was a much better showing than any other of the past six playoff appearances by the Bengals under Marvin Lewis, it still wasn't a solid enough game by the entire team to pull off the win. The media and other pundits will point to the Burfict/Jones meltdown late in the game and other penalties accrued, but these two plays (largely swept under the rug) had a big impact on the final outcome.