Burfict, Bengals defense enduring rocky stretch

CINCINNATI — Vontaze Burfict is the face of the Bengals defense. Neither the defense nor its face has had a good last couple of weeks.

The Bengals have been gashed for more than 900 yards of offense and 80 points in the last two games, a loss at New England and a tie against Carolina. Even the return of Burfict last week after missing two games with concussions wasn’t enough to get the Bengals settled against the Panthers.

Now comes word that the linebacker will be sending some money the NFL’s way. Again.

Pro Football Talk reported on Wednesday that the NFL is going to fine Burfict $25,000 for the two incidents of twisting ankles after tackles against Carolina last Sunday, once on quarterback Cam Newton and once against tight end Greg Olsen. Neither the Bengals nor the NFL has confirmed the fine. The NFL announces fines weekly on Fridays.

Burfict was fined nearly $60,000 last season, including $10,000 for hitting Green Bay tight end Ryan Taylor in the groin during a game last season.

Burfict led the NFL in tackles last season but he also led the league with nine personal fouls among the 14 penalties he collected for 150 yards. He earned a Pro Bowl berth and was named to the Associated Press second-team All-Pro last season but has quickly grown a reputation of a player who crosses the line of fair play too often.

"What makes him special is his edge," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "You’ve got to take your edge and focus it in the right areas."

Burfict suffered a concussion against Baltimore in the season opener but passed through the NFL’s concussion protocol in time to start the next week against Atlanta. He suffered a second concussion that game when teammate Emmanuel Lamur’s knee hit Burfict in the back of the helmet as the two linebackers attempted to avoid hitting a sliding quarterback Matt Ryan.

Burfict sat out games against Tennessee and New England with a bye in between before returning to play against the Panthers.

The question of his long-term health came up Wednesday during head coach Marvin Lewis’ press conference.

"Football’s changing and we’re trying to really coach the head out of football and that’s been a mission of the league for the last two or three years and that continues daily," said Lewis. "We’re teaching young guys new habits. Sometimes when that ball goes in the air it’s difficult to do all the time."

Then Lewis appeared to downplay the issue of concussions. They have become a greater issue over the past few years as anecdotal and scientific evidence have linked repeated head traumas with more serious conditions after a player has stopped playing.

"He had a concussion against Atlanta. That’s the biggest concern," said Lewis. "You don’t want him to have…. Again I coached defense and linebackers for a long time and concussions didn’t linger. Now we’ve found that because of the media and things they seem to linger longer. There’s a lot of attention paid to it. I don’t know why they linger longer, but I don’t remember them lingering like they do now."

Lewis was asked after practice if he wanted to clarify his comments. He declined, saying he shouldn’t have commented on concussions in the first place and would have no further comment.

Burfict was credited with 10 tackles against Carolina but he also drew three flags — a roughing the quarterback against Newton, an unnecessary roughness call against wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and an illegal contact penalty — that resulted in three first downs for the Panthers and extended drives.

No penalties were called on either of the ankle twisting incidents. Olsen told reporters in Charlotte on Monday that he believed the NFL should suspend Burfict for his actions, and former NFL running back Earnest Byner was among those criticizing the Bengals linebacker on Twitter. 

Burfict did not talk to media during Wednesday’s open locker room session. He has not spoken to the media since before the season opener, mostly because he has been under the NFL’s concussion protocol. For the past week, though, he has simply avoided questions.

Lewis said on Monday and reiterated on Wednesday that Burfict played with too much aggression and didn’t stay within the defensive game plan against Carolina. It was a problem many of the Bengals had as Newton totaled nearly 400 yards of offense with his arm and legs. It’s a problem Burfict rarely has.

He is an avid studier of film and game schemes. You don’t lead the league in tackles by happenstance.

Cornerback Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones didn’t agree with Burfict being fined. While no one else was confirming it, it was apparent that word had gotten around the locker room.

"Vontaze plays with great emotion," said Jones. "I don’t think he should have been fined $25,000. Like I’ve said before, this league is all about what you guys put out there in the media. So when those guys (Olsen) go talking about this and that, they have to respond. It is what it is. I think Vontaze will take that one on the chin and it can’t change the way he plays. We were talking about the penalties — I understand that — but you need to play aggressive and stay aggressive."

Jones has had his own past run-ins with the league. He knows what carrying a reputation onto the field can mean in the minds of officials. He doesn’t dispute that referees look at Burfict with a closer eye.

"The one where we me and him hit Benjamin, he didn’t hit him in his head with that one, he hit my arm. I know because it was hurting," said Jones. "Little stuff like that. That’s a bad call. You can’t tell the guy not to play the way he plays. If you look back at the film, that’s a clean hit. You give and take and you have to take the punches. I think Vontaze will be all right."

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