Burfict emerges as building block at linebacker

Mike Wilkening
Bengals DE Johnson receives franchise tag

Since entering the starting lineup in Week Three, Bengals WLB Vontaze Burfict has played well, with a 15-tackle game vs. Pittsburgh in Week Seven the highlight. Burfict got his chance when Thomas Howard suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the rookie has become an important part of the defense.

In fact, Burfict looks like the only surefire key contributor in the LB corps that you can safely pencil for 2013. Howard, who has played well in his two seasons in Cincinnati, is an unrestricted free agent, as are starting MLB Rey Maualuga and starting SLB Manny Lawson.

How the Bengals proceed at linebacker figures to be a major offseason story line. Of particular note: Maualuga is on pace for a career-high total in tackles, but he didn’t play particularly well in Week Seven loss to Pittsburgh, and Burfict did play in the middle at Arizona State.

Head coach Marvin Lewis defended Maualuga leading up to the club’s bye week, saying he wouldn't bench his starting middle linebacker.

“He didn’t play as well (in Week Seven) as he played over the last couple weeks,” Lewis said, according to the team. “But with some of it, it looks like he’s not playing as well because other people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and he’s actually doing what he is supposed to be doing most of the time. Unfortunately, on the last run of the game (a 32-yard gain by Jonathan Dwyer) he decides he’s going to be Superman and get out of his responsibility.

“To the layman who’s sitting there watching, or whoever is being critical of Rey, they’re probably being overly critical. Nobody’s going to tell me more about playing linebacker than what I know. So there’s a lot of good things he’s doing. Do we want him to play better and be the best linebacker in the National Football League? I sure do. And we’ll keep coaching him to be that.”