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Bengals exec Duke Tobin backs LB Vontaze Burfict

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Cincinnati Bengals' front office harbors no hard feelings toward linebacker Vontaze Burfict, as director of player personnel Duke Tobin made it clear at the combine Thursday that neither he nor the team blames the defender for the collapse that precipitated the Bengals' wild-card round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Vontaze did far more to cause us to win that game and during the season than he ever did to cause us to lose," Tobin said. "We all forget that [10] plays earlier, Vontaze really won the game for us."

Burfict made an interception deep in Pittsburgh's territory with just less than two minutes remaining that appeared to ice the playoff victory, which would have been their first in 25 years. But on the ensuing Bengals drive, running back Jeremy Hill fumbled, giving Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger one final chance.

Without the fumble, "we wouldn't be talking about any of this," Tobin said. "We'd be talking about how great Vontaze is."

Thanks in part to a pair of personal foul penalties that came inside the game's final 25 seconds, Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to that win. Burfict had the first penalty, a 15-yarder for sending his shoulder pad into receiver Antonio Brown's head. Brown suffered a concussion and didn't play in the next week's playoff game, which Pittsburgh lost.

In the aftermath of the penalty, Burfict was suspended three games next season for repeated player-safety violations. Earlier this week, Burfict told ESPN's Josina Anderson he was going to change his style of play by primarily starting to tackle lower in hopes of getting back in the good graces of officials.

"I play hard. Sometimes it gets me in trouble," Burfict said. "My style of play is aggressive, and [the game has] changed, and I have to change with it. That play right there, I think if I wasn't number 55, I wouldn't have got flagged."

Tobin doesn't want to see any decrease in Burfict's passionate play, but he was glad to hear the Pro Bowler promise change.

"This game is about passion, and passionate players are the best players in the league, so we're not going to tell him not to be a passionate football player," Tobin said. "That's what he is. That's what makes him good. Obviously there are some things that maybe at the end of plays or some decisions he makes in a fraction of a second that he'll start to do a little differently, but he's an important part of what we do, and we're not going to restrict him to the point where he's ineffective."

On the same play when Brown was hit and injured, Bengals cornerback Adam Jones was flagged for making contact with an official. He was trying to get to Steelers assistant Joey Porter, who had made his way to the middle of the field. Jones, too, remains in the Bengals' favor despite entering free agency.

"They're valuable guys to us," Tobin said. "So I don't worry about a leadership or composure issue. We've got a veteran team that can handle it and bounce back."