CINCINNATI — Their lockers are close enough at the corner angle of the Bengals’ locker room that James Harrison and Vontaze Burfict are virtually inseparable. It would be impossible for Harrison’s presence not to have some sort of an effect on Burfict.
As Burfict continues to rack up double-digit tackle totals, as he did Sunday with 15 stops in the Bengals’ 41-20 win over the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium, it’s impossible not to see the similarities in the players. Harrison is in his 10th NFL season, Burfict is in his second. They play with the same aggressive downhill style and edge that at times might take them past the line of fair play — at least by the standards set by the NFL offices in New York — but sets a tone for their teammates.
Sunday, it was Harrison who started the Bengals’ comeback from a 13-0 deficit and the play of Burfict that kept the avalanche of momentum on the Cincinnati side well beyond its record-setting 31-point second quarter. Harrison’s first interception since 2010 set up the Bengals’ first points of the game, while Burfict scored his first career touchdown on a forced fumble, fumble recovery and return trifecta late in the second quarter.
By the NFL’s count, Burfict leads the league with 118 tackles through Cincinnati’s first 11 games. During Harrison’s NFL Defensive MVP season of 2008 with Pittsburgh, he had 92 tackles plus 16 sacks that accounted for 114 yards and seven forced fumbles.
“(Burfict)’s an aggressive player. That’s something you have to have as a linebacker. You can’t have a guy that’s sitting back,” said Harrison. “But I think I see a little bit of me in him, especially with these fines he’s been getting.”
The line received plenty of laughter from Harrison and the media surrounding him but the two have acquired a hefty bill from the NFL.
Harrison has been fined more than $100,000 over the course of his career and was suspended by the league for a hit he made on then-Browns quarterback Colt McCoy in 2011. Burfict has been fined $59,875 this season alone and Sunday he picked up his sixth personal foul penalty when he retaliated against a Browns offensive lineman who he thought got an extra shot in on one of Burfict’s teammates.
The penalty only cost the Bengals two yards because it happened at the Cincinnati 4-yard line in the first quarter. Burfict was well aware of what he was doing. The Browns picked up one yard in the next three plays and had to settle for a 20-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff.
“I think it set off a fire,” said Burfict. “It’s a linebacker getting pushed and I’ve got everybody’s back on defense. If someone’s pushing me, they’ve got my back. I retaliated and pushed him and I think that set the tone for everybody. All right, if they want to play that way, let’s go. We stopped them. They got three points and that set a tempo.”
Harrison’s interception of a Jason Campbell pass in the final minute of the first quarter led to the Bengals’ first points of the game; only a penalty against defensive lineman Brandon Thompson for illegal blocking in the back kept Harrison from scoring his second career regular season touchdown. While Harrison didn’t get the immediate fruits for his labor as his 21-yard return, in which he bulldozed his way through Cleveland offensive linemen Shawn Lauvao and Alex Mack, he gave the offense and quarterback Andy Dalton a chance to atone for a horrific first quarter.
“As soon as I got the ball in my hand all I was thinking of was ‘We’ve got to score.’ Our offense was a little sluggish at the time and we felt like we needed something to get us turned around,” said Harrison. “We had that opportunity. I felt like I wasn’t going to be stopped. I was stopped but the offense came out and did their job.”
Dalton threw a well-placed pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham, who made Cleveland safety T.J. Ward miss and then ran through cornerback Joe Haden’s attempted tackle for a 25-yard touchdown.
It’s the second week in a row Harrison has come up with a turnover when his team was down and in need of some good vibes. Last week he recovered a Joe Flacco fumble forced by Carlos Dunlap at the Baltimore 50 with the Bengals trailing 17-10 in the fourth quarter.
Harrison has scored one regular season touchdown in his career. It happened way back in 2004, his first full season with the Steelers, when he picked up a fumble and returned it 18 yards in the fourth quarter of a 29-24 win at Buffalo in the regular season finale.
He also owns one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history when he intercepted a Kurt Warner pass at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIII and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first half. Harrison broke and maneuvered his way through six would-be Arizona tacklers to reach the end zone. It helped the Steelers win the Lombardi Trophy, 27-23.
Harrison might not be the same player he was for the Steelers a few years ago but he’s been a perfect addition to the Bengals defense in more than one way.
“He’s a leader, he’s the funniest guy on the team, to me. I crack jokes with him all of time,” said Burfict. “Sometimes he rubs off on me. I take the same supplements that he does and sometimes I feel like I’m in his element. I take the same energy that he does and sometimes it makes me crazy on the field.”
It’s an energy that’s contagious for the entire defense and team.
“Vontaze has his own style. He’s real aggressive. You see it when you watch the film,” said safety Reggie Nelson. “He’s going to play a long time in the league if he takes care of his body and keeps doing the right things. He’s going to come into his own. It’s too early to say (he’s the next Harrison) but he’s a hard downhill hitter and you can always depend on Tez to be where he’s supposed to be. We can say that.”