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Game of inches

Posted Nov 12, 2013

Two fourth downs. Two stops. A couple of rulers. The two biggest plays in a game that featured a 51-yard tipped Hail Mary tying touchdown with no time left.

In a game of inches, Cincinnati's long march to the stretch run took a detour through a couple of yards on two fourth downs Sunday in Baltimore. And it's not only fans and media that second-guess on Monday.

"I called a lousy play," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said as he mulled his fourth-and-two screen in overtime that lost 11 yards.

"I think you have a chance to kind of take the momentum early in the game," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said of the fourth-and-one on the game's first series. "I thought it was great. Great opportunity. That one came back and bit us; it happens."

Two fourth downs. Two stops. A couple of rulers. The two biggest plays in a game that featured a 51-yard tipped Hail Mary tying touchdown with no time left.

Gruden shook his head. On quarterback Andy Dalton's failed quarterback sneak to open the game at midfield that turned into a Baltimore touchdown, he couldn't help but recall just the day before in the quarterbacks meeting when Dalton reminded him he had never been stopped on a quarterback sneak on fourth down.

"I told him to knock on wood and he didn’t; that’s what happened," Gruden said.

It was more like the Ravens knocking the Bengals back, but the Bengals were still seething about the officials allowing the Ravens to get lined up and set. Head coach Marvin Lewis doesn't second-guess his decision, other than not deciding to call a timeout.

"They had decided they were going to measure it then they decided not to measure it where the ball actually came from the sideline," Whitworth said. "By the time we actually got the ball and a chance to run the play they had already lined up in the gaps and were coming off the ball before we had a chance to move. It was really kind of a bad scenario. Still, we feel like we should get an inch."

"I just think as an offense you should have confidence getting an inch no matter where the ball is, always. In those scenarios we have been very highly successful the last couple years. Really no reason to think you are taking that big of a risk. That's why it's definitely something that hurt us in the game. You have to bounce back and overcome it and do something better to make a big play yourself."

It took the rest of the afternoon, but three hours later the Bengals were staring at another big play that could go a long way in winning it. Another fourth down from the Ravens 33 in overtime. Too far to try a field goal against a gusting wind, too tight of a game to punt. Gruden went with a screen to rookie running back Giovani Bernard and why not? It was an 18-yard screen to Bernard that gave the Bengals their first touchdown in the fourth quarter.

But this one didn't come off from the get-go as Dalton threw it immediately to Bernard coming out of the backfield. The Ravens said after the game they knew it was coming and safety James Ihedigbo penetrated right away before right tackle Andre Smith and the rest could get set up. When Bernard tried to make something happen, he lost 11 yards and the Ravens had a short field for the winning field goal.

"They ran the play earlier in the game, and the offensive lineman, he grabbed me, and I couldn’t get off the block," Ihedigbo said. "So the other guys made the tackle. Once I saw the tight end go to the other side, I said, ‘Oh, they’re running it again.’ It just clicked."

That's the call that kept Gruden up Sunday.

"They played it nicely. The safety was standing right there and we couldn’t get out to him," Gruden said. "Unfortunately, he had to make something happen because he would have gotten tackled for a loss anyway. He had to try to cut it back.

"It was just a unique deal, man. It was just a screen pass that we called and like a lot of screens, we called it for a certain look. We thought we were going to get some kind of man-to-man, and we did, but it didn’t work out the way we hoped."

Even Bernard wondered if he just should have just taken a five-yard loss instead of trying to make a play. But here's the thing: It was his reverse-the-field 35-yard touchdown run that tied the game 11 days before in Miami.

"They just rallied to the ball a little more than the Dolphins did," Bernard said. "It's part of the game. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. In that case it didn’t and we had to turn ball back over. For me, maybe I should have just gone down."

But then again, it worked just the week before.

"Everybody has a part in these things," Whitworth said. "Everybody has different plays we wish we had back. The quarterback does, the line does, receivers do, everybody has a part in it."

HAIL, HAIL: How rare is a Hail Mary pass? Rare enough that Lewis has never seen one personally in more than 30 years of coaching and neither has Gruden, a former quarterback at Louisville in his 11th year coaching in the NFL.

Except the ones he threw as one of the great indoor quarterbacks of all time.

"I completed them off the net and stuff,” he said.

Maybe one of the reasons you never see it is because it's never practiced live. The Bengals set it up every Saturday and they walk through it and talk it over. But nobody wants to start jumping around and get hurt.

“You can’t practice it. You have your set of rules of where you are going to meet at and who's going to go for the ball," Gruden said. "If you can’t get it you try to bat it up and hope something happens. Marvin (Jones) did a hell of a job getting in there and jumping up there and tipping it. A.J. kind of got grabbed and the ball just popped up to him."

Which is exactly the point. Gruden said Green got hooked by a defender on his route, but that made the play. He was late getting to the jump scrum on the two-yard line and was standing in the end zone when the tip came to him.

"It was a fluke," Gruden said.

They all are. The closest Gruden ever came to seeing one was really weird. When he was at Louisville, the Cards were trying to run out the clock when Southern Mississippi's Brett Favre escaped Ted Washington's bear hug at his own 20 and launched a bomb.

"It bounced off a safety’s facemask and the receiver caught it full stride. I don’t know how that is not a part of the greatest plays of all time; pretty rare,” Gruden said. "It was a catch-and-run."

MORE DALTON: The reason the Bengals were forced into a Hail Mary is because they had just executed a dreadful looking two-minute drill. Dalton compounded his tough day by committing the cardinal sin of the hurry-up and took two sacks. But he also had the presence of mind to get everybody lined up for the Hail Mary. It's that kind of play that makes Lewis stand by him.

“Well, you'd like to," Lewis said of seeing more awareness from Dalton. "But again, there's another brilliant play, because we get the ball spiked and killed so we have an opportunity for the Hail Mary. So again, it just talks about the kind of player he is, that he can go on to the next play, and he did that, and a great job by our players in doing that to be able to get the ball killed, and have the opportunity for the fourth-down play to make a play.

"It just talks about the qualities of Andy. That's huge. Not many people have that kind of calm and makeup to handle that situation, where I'm sure everybody was shutting off the TVs and going to the refrigerator. He's calmly killing the ball and giving us a chance at another play.”

But after his second straight three-interception game, the question is coming up again about Dalton's ability to take the Bengals all the way. Lewis and Gruden say he needs to do better, but so does everybody else.

“We thought he played inconsistent. We thought he had some marvelous plays, some great audibles and some great checks. He had a couple things that we wish he could have done better, and guys have to do a little better for him too," Lewis said. "He’s got their eyes and they’ve got to finish the play. He’ll continue to play better.

"We put the pressure on him always to play better. He is the offense, he runs the offense. When we’re going good, he gets all the credit. When we’re not as good as we should be, it’s us that needs to be fixed. He had some plays he could have done better like everybody did, including the head coach. The head coach should have called timeout (before the early fourth-and-one try) and taken the pressure off the offense.”

What the coaches wish Dalton would do is not make those two or three what-are-you-doing throws he seems to have every game. Two bad overthrows on Sunday turned into interceptions and Gruden seemed to think even though Dalton was throwing into the wind on both of them, they were still going to sail.

"I think a couple of them just got away from him. A couple were against the wind and they got away from him," Gruden said. "The first one was up and it sailed. A slight overthrow turned into a major overthrow. The one to A.J. was similar. He threw it early before A.J. set and it got away from him and stuck up there in the wind and floated."

One knock on Dalton is he's not an AFC North quarterback because his arm can't cut the weather like a Joe Flacco. But Gruden shakes his head. Dalton got the ball where he had to on the Hail Mary into the wind, and a pass interference saved Flacco on a badly underthrown deep ball into the wind.

“How many picks did (Flacco) throw? He didn’t cut the wind too good," Gruden said. "Andy made a couple errant throws. On the one to Tyler (Eifert) it sailed on him. Other than Drew Brees, a lot of quarterbacks struggled (Sunday). When you’re playing a 16-game schedule against a different defense every week they give you different problems you are going to have your struggles. You’re not going to put Hall of Fame numbers up every week unless you are a Hall of Famer.”

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