CINCINNATI – The last four years have been an odyssey for Rey Maualuga, with an emphasis on the first syllable of his NFL journey.
When the Bengals selected Maualuga in the second round of the 2009 they envisioned an every-down playmaker, the kind of player who could transfer the abilities and skills that garnered him the Bednarik Award as college football’s top defensive player his senior season at Southern California to the NFL. There have been flashes of that player but not in the sustainable measure that was expected. Not in the way that former USC teammates Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing have shown.
That’s something that has concerned Maualuga, overly so in many ways in the past. He’s always been sensitive to what others think, which is good to a degree but can be a hindrance if taken too far.
Maualuga says those days are behind him. The new two-year deal he got from the Bengals in the offseason helped ease his concerns. He says he has changed his focus from trying to please everyone to making sure he’s pleasing the people who count; the front office, his coaches and his teammates.
“I’m just concentrating on me,” said Maualuga. “I don’t know if there was a time frame. Obviously every year you’d see their (Matthews and Cushing) success and I’m thinking about it. It was a ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda, one day I’ll be on the level they’re on’ but now it doesn’t drive me. I’m just focused on me. I’m focused on what I need to do to get better and who this Rey Maualuga player needs to be. Only I can control that.”
Maualuga is second on the Bengals in tackles (21 according to the count of the coaching staff) behind fellow linebacker Vontaze Burfict (25) through the first two games of the season and heading into Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium against Green Bay and old teammate Matthews. Along with the new contract was supposed to be a more specialized role in the defense; i.e. fewer snaps, but Maualuga has played in 89 of 115 defensive snaps through the first two games, second-most among the linebackers.
“I’ve thought he’s looked great. He’s in much better shape than he was last year. He’s thinner, he’s much stronger in his core, he’s moving a lot faster in coverage,” said linebackers coach Paul Guenther. “I’ve thought he’s played excellent, aside from the bonehead play he had in Chicago and the one play where he was in great position and the tight end made a great play in Chicago. Other than that, he’s been really good. He’s becoming the player that we always thought he could be.”
Maualuga’s bonehead play was the 15-yard personal foul he received for throwing a Bears’ player to the ground after the Bengals had stopped a third-and-six conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter and were about to get the ball back for a final opportunity at erasing or overtaking a 24-21 deficit. Yes, the officials could have called offsetting penalties because both players continued pushing and shoving after the whistle had blown but the fact is that Maualuga got called for the flag.
The play didn’t cost the Bengals the game – that was a team effort loss – but it did take away a final offensive possession. Maualuga spoke with head coach Marvin Lewis after the game, as well as teammates. While no one in the locker room was pleased, there also was no finger-pointing. It was a lesson.
“That (penalty) hurt,” said Maualuga. “You’ve just got to get over it and learn from the mistakes. I sure did. I can’t do that anymore.”
Maualuga and the entire linebacker group looked much more in synch against Pittsburgh Monday night. All four timeouts the Bengals used in Chicago were because of defensive confusion, players not being in the right spot at the right time in the right packages. That was a product of losing several linebackers to injury late in preseason, including Emmanuel Lamur, who was expected to play a lot in the nickel defense.
There was no confusion against the Steelers. The original plan coming into training camp might have been to make Maualuga more of a situational player but plans change. The Bengals are confident Maualuga is up to the task.
“I think he knows we believe in him,” said Guenther. “Everybody makes a big deal about who’s playing what position – the Mike, the Will – but we’re trying to get our best three guys out there to play in the situations.”