Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict wants to be a star. His definition of
being a star is different than most. It has nothing to do with
limelight, everything to do with team.
Nov 17, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) reacts during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati won 41-20.
Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports
By Kevin GoheenFOX Sports Ohio
CINCINNATI -- The art of tackling is a football essential. If you can't tackle, the opposing team tends to score a lot of points against you.
No one in the NFL made more tackles last season than Vontaze Burfict. The Bengals linebacker made 171 tackles by the official count of the league statisticians. Coaches like to keep their own count after watching film. They usually tend to be a little more generous in the tackling totals. Burfict's coaches credited him with 204 stops.
Regardless of the number, the player who two years ago at this time was considered too radioactive to touch by nearly everyone in the NFL except for Marvin Lewis, is now a leader of one of the best defenses in the league. Burfict is an every-down linebacker who can stuff running backs, cover them out of the backfield and drop into coverage against tight ends and wide receivers alike.
There are players in the league like Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu who could be lined up anywhere on the field on a given play and wreak havoc. Quarterbacks have to find them. Quarterbacks won't have to look long to find Burfict. The Bengals don't hide him. They don't move him around all that much. Just because you know where he's at doesn't mean you've got an advantage on Burfict.
"He's a guy who is really instinctive. He has that trait so he can see stuff before it happens a lot of times," said Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who faces Burfict daily in practice. "People don't give him credit for how smart he is. He understands what offenses are trying to do, and then when he plays with the edge that he does he has all of the traits you want in a starting 'backer."
The Bengals began their final week of OTA practices Monday. Head coach Marvin Lewis closed up the practice with a stern message to the team followed up by some wind sprints.
"We needed a little bit of a reminder of what it's going to be like and what's important," said Lewis. "I think that we want to remind them we don't to be complacent at any point. We can't be complacent, we can't be average; we have to make sure we keep working. We keep doing the little things correct and moving forward with them. We can't go sideways at any point."
It's a message that gets delivered every now and then on the practice field, a message that is a constant in the meeting rooms and one that the players have learned to police themselves, said Burfict. He is just entering his third season but he is one of the senior members in the linebacker room. Rey Maualuga has the most experience with five previous seasons. Vinny Rey will be heading into his fifth season with the team.
Then comes Burfict.
Gone from last season's group are James Harrison and Michael Boley, guys who might not have played an abundance of snaps but were a veteran presence in the locker room. Even if their previous experience hadn't been with the Bengals and how then-defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and then-linebackers coach Paul Guenther ran their rooms, they quickly caught on.
Burfict's style of play --seek and destroy-- is reminiscent of Harrison in his prime.
"I don't necessarily think it was because James was here but it was more about Tez getting comfortable," said Dalton. "He wasn't a rookie last year so he's kind of coming into his own. I think it was very similar to how James was for all of those years in Pittsburgh.
Burfict isn't afraid to be a presence. He wants to be a star, not for the limelight but what it means for the team. He was named to his first Pro Bowl last season as well as the AP All-Pro second-team. The Cincinnati chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America named Burfict the Bengals MVP. His next step is to take what has already been a considerable level of play, not by just himself but the entire defense, and find a way to raise it.
"To me, (leadership) means taking a team to where it's never been before," said Burfict. "I lead by example. Know the playbook in and out. When the coach calls my name I've got to be answering right. All of it is about taking a team to the Super Bowl. I think that defines a leader. There are multiple ways but I think that's my way of defining a leader."
Zimmer may now be the head coach in Minnesota but with Guenther calling the shots as the defensive coordinator there won't be many changes to the basic philosophy of the defense. It's layered. The defensive line plays run-first, then get after the passer. If the linemen are occupying blockers, that frees up linebackers to make their plays. The cornerbacks are expected to play a lot of man coverages and the safeties have to be versatile enough to play not just in the deep third but wherever needed.
It's a system that has led to the Bengals being ranked in the top seven of NFL defenses in four of the past five seasons.
Matt Burke is the new linebackers coach for the Bengals. He spent the past five seasons with Detroit. He's still just getting to know this new group of players but he's been well aware of Burfict from when he scouted Burfict at Arizona State.
"I think I erased all of my scouting notes on him," said Burke. "Everyone is familiar with the story and how that went down. Obviously there were 32 teams that passed on him and we (Lions) were one of them. I can't hide that fact but it's been great to see, even from afar, I always respect and appreciate players who come up from whatever circumstances they are under."
Burfict has made a lot of people erase their scouting notes.
"As an outsider coming in, you know that you don't have 170-some tackles without getting to the ball. That speaks to his effort level," said Burke. "But he does it within the system. He does it within the scheme. He knows when he can take a shot at coming under a block or when he has to cross face. He always gets to the ball but he's not guessing. A lot of times guys will take shots and guess and that puts them out of position.
"His effort level, his intensity and his want to getting to the ball is there but he's also doing it in the right sort of format. He's rarely out of position."
The playoff loss to San Diego still stings. So much has been made of how Dalton and offense didn't play its best, to say the least, but a defense that built its persona on being more physical than the opponent and often times setting the table for the offense got pushed around by the Chargers in the second half.
"It leaves a bad taste and makes you work hard in the offseason but nobody brings it up," said Burfict of the loss. "We just come in each day to get better and understand the defense. Coach G (Guenther) was telling us that like the Spurs and how they won (the NBA Finals). They're not the greatest athletically but they know their system. If everybody knows the system -- d ends, safeties, corners, backups if anyone goes down -- if everyone knows the system you don't have to have the greatest athleticism. Because we have so many people that are athletic and competitive, our backups are, and if we all know the system we can't be beat."