Baseball is supposed to be the game of inches, right?
Sam Hubbard, the Bengals rookie defensive end who grew up in Cincinnati, has played enough ball to know better.
“Game of inches. Game of inches,” Hubbard muttered a few times Sunday after the Bengals couldn’t take the measure of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton during the fourth quarter of a 31-21 loss.
But after running back Christian McCaffrey ran for miles and miles with 184 stunning yards, SAM linebacker Nick Vigil didn’t want to hear about inches.
“Those are all great and if we made those plays, great,” Vigil said. “But we didn’t stop the run today, and it lost the game. They had some good schemes, but we didn’t fit the run right and we have to fix it. We’ve seen those runs 100 times. For whatever reason, we didn’t make the tackle.”
What happened against the Panthers just doesn’t happen very often against a Marvin Lewis team. After Newton and McCaffrey got done with their option clinic straight out of an NCAA seminar mixing the zone read with the option, Carolina had 230 rushing yards on 41 carries. That’s only the sixth time in Lewis’s 16 seasons they’ve allowed that many rushing in a game.
And after McCaffrey merely went up the gut 28 times when Newton deigned to keep the ball in his belly, he rushed for the sixth most yards against a Lewis club and the most since the Ravens’ Ray Rice galloped for 191 in the 2011 finale. (Dare we breathe it? McCaffrey came within two yards of matching the immortal Lee Suggs’ 186 for the Browns in the 2003 finale but nowhere near Jamal Lewis’ 216 for the Browns in 2007.)
“They run a lot of different stuff,” Vigil said. “They’ve got a quarterback that runs as well as anyone in the league and has a cannon for an arm. If you don’t play him in the run game, he’ll kill you. If you play him a little too much, 22 (McCaffrey) will kill you. You got that extra weapon in a quarterback and we didn’t do a good job stopping him.”
It was a tough day for sophomore middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, making his second straight start for the injured Preston Brown. He didn’t get a lot of help from a Bengals’ front that got handled much of the day in the run game by an offensive line missing its starting tackles and Pro Bowl right guard and the Panthers set the tone on their second series when McCaffrey cut back over left tackle for 13 yards and then did it again on the next snap for 45 yards.
On the big one, Nickerson got enveloped by rookie tight end Ian Thomas and nose tackle Andrew Billings got tangled up with left guard Greg Van Roten and never got away and when McCaffrey shot through the hole he made safety Shawn Williams miss. Rookie safety Jessie Bates saved the TD for about 90 seconds.
“They ran a screen one way and pulled guys, it came down to us getting off a block,” Nickerson said. “Misdirection and screens coming back side. All to mess up your eyes and get you off your keys. Guys motioning fast, flashing back, taking your eyes off certain things and you have to play your keys. It’s an offense you have to be very sound and today we just didn’t have it.
“That’s back to a college-like offense. Where they screen, go off (run-pass options). It’s challenging because it’s truly assignment football. One step here or there and they got you. You have to be very disciplined. ….its assignment football.”
If Nickerson sounds like a coach’s kid, it’s because he is. The Panthers even had nine-year vet left end Carlos Dunlap talking to himself and he had the one sack of Newton.
“It’s a tough thing because you’ve got to be disciplined and no matter how many times it is effective we just have to do our job and don’t do somebody else’s job,” Dunlap said. “We’re still good. We were in a tough environment playing a tough team.”
But even as much as the Panthers punished the Bengals up front, they were still inches away. With the Bengals needing just a TD to tie for much of the final 18 minutes, Dunlap tipped another pass, his fifth of the season for the most by anybody not a DB. But it fell harmlessly to the grass. Try to tell that to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, whose pass to wide receiver Josh Malone was tipped and picked off.
“Unfortunately, tipped balls don’t find the ground too often, other than sitting up in the air; it’s just the way it works,” Dalton said.
Then with 11 minutes left, Dunlap tomahawked the ball out of Newton’s hand and Hubbard fell on it at the Panthers 28.
“Somehow it squirted away,” Hubbard said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Somehow Newton got it back.
“That’s a tough one,” Dunlap said. “I could have done a better job trying to hold on to him within the rules so he’s not the guy to recover it … The ball is going to bounce whatever way it is. It’s an oval. It’s not going to bounce the same every time. Today it didn’t bounce our way.”
And there was the punt with 4:21 left and Panthers punter Michael Palardy standing at about his 40. Hubbard roared in untouched on a perfect call by special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons and somehow the kick missed a large part of Hubbard’s body. He swears it hit his elbow, but Bengals returner Alex Erickson called a fair catch all the way at his 17.
“I was trying not to rough the punter. It hit my elbow,” Hubbard said. “I wish I got it more solid. It is what it is.”
What it is, is a game of inches. A couple of plays can wipe out an afternoon of frustration.
“I’ve got to tip it into my guys’ hands or we make a game-changing play,” Dunlap said. “Sometimes times you need a bounce, too.”
But they lost because they let Newton and McCaffrey bounce.