Bengals revamped linebackers ready to get started
CINCINNATI – Vontaze Burfict was running around chairs in the gymnasium inside Paul Brown Stadium a year ago simulating what he would need to do as the Will linebacker. It was a position Burfict had never played before in a game but a couple of days before the Bengals were to play Cleveland in Week 2 Burfict was in the middle of a cram session with linebackers coach Paul Guenther. Starter Thomas Howard tore up his knee in practice and Burfict, an undrafted rookie, was the next man up.
Four days before this season’s opener at Chicago and the Bengals are scrambling again at the linebacker spot. The starting trio of Burfict at Will, Rey Maualuga in the middle and James Harrison at Sam is intact but the loss of Emmanuel Lamur to a torn muscle in his right shoulder is forcing some shuffling in the playing time and packages.
The Bengals have just five linebackers on the roster – Vinny Rey and undrafted rookie Jayson DiManche are the other two – and they are in the process of moving Taylor Mays from safety into a linebacker role. Howard, still unsigned as an unrestricted free agent, was in town Tuesday for a workout with the Bengals. At the moment he remains unsigned, so Mays is now the one learning a new position on the fly.
Guenther’s linebacker room was considered deep and talented when training camp started. That depth and talent will be tested right off the bat.
“We’ve got guys who can do multiple things,” said Guenther. “I’m used to it. Last year we lost Howard on a Thursday. We train guys to know all of the positions and roles for each guy so that we even out the snaps. Guys will be ready to go.”
The roles have changed from the last time the Bengals played a meaningful game last January in the playoffs against Houston. Burfict was the team’s leading tackler but he was still a rookie, not the voice of the defense. Maualuga was the guy wearing the headset inside his helmet, linked up to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Harrison was still a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Burfict will be the one with Zimmer in his ear Sunday at Soldier Field.
“He’s always been a confident guy,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “That’s one of the great traits about him. He’s a very confident player. He understands football and he has an innateness about him that’s special, something that not many guys have. He was born with it or developed it somewhere, but he’s got it.”
Burfict will be the one calling out the defensive plays and he won’t be coming off the field much; the Bengals’ original plan for their nickel package was to have Burfict and Lamur on the field, Maualuga and Harrison on the sideline. When the nickel is called for against the Bears, it could Maualuga, Mays or someone else out there with Burfict.
“I feel like I'm taking a role on the defense as being a leader, a vocal leader and a leader on the field,” said Burfict. “For me I just want to make sure everyone is on the same page out there because I feel if a safety or corner messes up, it's my bad. I didn't communicate to them. I take full responsibility for what happens out there.
“I feel like all 11 of us need to be on the same page. That would be the worst case scenario if we come in the next day and Zimmer is yelling at us because they scored on us on some play that we all didn’t communicate on.”
Maualuga isn’t complaining about the change of roles. He signed a two-year deal to return to the Bengals as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but the Bengals weren’t going to ask the same things of him as they had in the past. He wasn’t going to be playing in the nickel as much, and wouldn’t be asked to cover receivers as much as he had in the past.
Maualuga is an introspective person and player. He arguably had his best preseason and training camp. Coming into camp in shape and staying healthy certainly helped.
“I’m just respecting my role here on this defense, my responsibilities and who I am as a player,” said Maualuga. “I’m here to do what (the coaches) are asking me to do. If I don’t show up, I could be gone and I don’t want that to happen so I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. With respect to the coaches and the people upstairs, I don’t want to be a wasted roster spot. My opportunity is now.”
The presence of Harrison helps. He’s no-nonsense about his job and immediately commands respect.
“I follow his footsteps because he's been there done that,” said Burfict. “He does a lot of great things on the field. He's been a great communicator. He learns things pretty fast. It puts more on the offense to block him, me and Rey.”