'He willed us back into that game'

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With a few other bounces, Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther knows what they'd be saying about Vontaze Burfict this week.

The shame of it is, said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther as he clicked The Play back and forth on Monday in his office, WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict was the player of Saturday's Wild Card Game. Until the defense had to go back out on the field, where Burfict was called for hitting Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown high on a ball over the middle with 22 seconds left and the Wild Card was re-shuffled in Pittsburgh's favor with the 15-yard penalty.

Guenther reviewed the play just a few hours before it was cited in Burfict's three-game suspension Monday night handed down by the NFL for repeated violation of the player safety code. The suspension is for the first three games of next season, although he can participate in the spring camps, training camp, and the pre-season games. By the time Burfict made a diving interception at the Steelers 26 with 1:36 left and the Bengals leading, 16-15, he had forced the first turnover of the game, a fumble by wide receiver Markus Wheaton, and had sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers 1 on a third-down blitz, driving Big Ben out of the game and setting up the Bengals' first score. But after running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball away a scant 13 seconds after Burfict's pick, the defense was back on the field facing a glued together Ben.

The Bengals understand Burfict has a dirty player label that has been tough to shed since his college days. But they are mystified why the last play from scrimmage Saturday night is being characterized as the deadliest play since Jack Tatum put Darryl Stingley in a wheelchair and has burnished Burfict's image as a modern-day Conrad-Dobler-dirtiest-player-in-the-league.

And while head coach Marvin Lewis understands why they gave Burfict 15 yards for hitting Brown high, he says Burfict didn't go over the line.

"It didn't go over the edge. But unfortunately, he can't have that kind of blow with the guy that's receiving the pass," Lewis said at his Monday news conference.  "But it didn't go over the edge for the course of the season. He's had three penalties this season for unnecessary roughness. On one, the guy pushed him back, and I was told later that they (officials) missed the first push. And then he pushed the guy from St. Louis in the back on the screen play right there at the ball. Let's not take things out of context, and understand it. Let's judge the body of work."

So it's believed the club is going to urge Burfict to appeal. The league nailed him "for using his shoulder to make forcible contact to the head and neck area of a defenseless receiver." Burfict has previously been fined for safety-related violations four times this past season, including a $50,000 fine for unnecessarily contacting an opponent who was out of the play in the win over the Ravens in the last game of the regular season.

On Monday, Guenther could barely see Saturday's penalty as he kept running back the last play of the season on his screen. He says he does understand the league being sensitive about the head and neck area. But he also says he doesn't think Burifct had an intent to hurt Brown.

"I don't know what the rules are anymore," Guenther said. "I teach the guys the target area, but the minute they see bang-bang, it's a flag . . . I'm with (Bill) Belichick. Review everything."

Guenther reviewed this one back and forth. Burfict dropping into zone coverage. Opening his hips, driving to the ball and there is Brown leaping for an overthrown ball. Burfict lowers his shoulder. Brown ducks his head. Split-second, Guenther says. No time to pull up. They collide and Brown is on the ground for several minutes until he gets up and heads to concussion protocol.

 "Brown really extended out. (Burfict) really could have blasted this guy . . .  If he really wanted to, he could have stuck his elbow out. It wasn't malicious. My opinion.  Other people are going to look at it differently," Guenther said.

Here is how Guenther is looking at it. He runs it back and forth.

"Right now he realizes he thinks he might catch the ball," Guenther said as Burfict is about to collide with Brown. "He thinks, "If he catches the ball, I'm trying to get the ball out, trying to dislodge it.'''

"But the way the guy landed and lays down, there is going to be a flag."

Guenther doesn't know how Burfict could have played it much better. In fact, he's more upset about the 15-yard flag after that 15-yard flag. The one where cornerback Adam Jones was provoked into an altercation by Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter, whom, by rule, shouldn't be on the field.

Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Cincinnati Bengals vs Pittsburgh Steelers Wild Card playoff game 01/09/2016

"I'm still looking for an explanation for that," Guenther said.

Lewis, a member of the NFL competition committee, usually has these conversations about legal and illegal hits in the relaxed, tony venue of the annual March league meeting. Not in the aftermath of the most heart-breaking loss of his 13 seasons.

"He can't have that kind of blow with the guy receiving the pass. (The call) was part of what football is now," Lewis said. "You have to learn to play within the scope of what football is right now. When receiving the football, those guys are being protected. I understand, I'm part of why they're being protected."

Which gives you an idea of where the NFL is on this stuff. Knee deep in gray area with even Lewis and Guenther and the league unable to agree on what is a penalty and how severe it is.

One thing where there is no gray area is how important Burfict is to this defense.

"He willed us back into that game. He willed the team,' said linebacker Vincent Rey. "We all see it. He was willing us to that win.

 "I love playing with him. I love being on the field with him. I've said it before. He raises my play. He raises our level as a team. It wasn't the most brutal hit of the game," Rey said. "It wasn't a helmet-to-helmet hit. It's tough. The refs have a tough job. Things are so quick. But we have a tough job, too. You're a step or two away from a guy and you have to determine how to hit him, how he's catching the ball. Is he catching the ball? Is it going to be a first down? Such a bang-bang play."

And as someone said Monday, if Burfict tried to hit lower, he'll be accused of going for the knees.

"He's going to get targeted by the officials. I understand that," Guenther said. "That's the funny thing about this league. If the game is over, everybody is talking about how good of a player Vontaze is. We all know he plays with an edge, but all this other BS would never have happed and that's the shame of it."

Burfict also had the backing of defensive tackle Domata Peko, one of the defensive captains.

"I think he was just doing his job. If (Brown) catches that over the middle they're going to kick an easy field goal, so what does he try and do he tries to do his job get the ball off him," Peko said. "You never want to take any aggression away from people. That's how Tez plays, he plays with that aggression and that fire and it's what makes him a special player. I think he was just doing his job."

 

Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium for the Wild Card playoff game 1/9/2016

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