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Homegrown Flowers in a backer tussle

Posted Aug 22, 2014

Marquis Flowers is a linebacker who also played his college ball in Arizona. He understands why the homecoming buzz is all about Vontaze Burfict, but he's the one fighting for a job.

Marquis Flowers is trying to show he can do more than run.

Marquis Flowers can understand why.

He’s a linebacker who played his college ball in Arizona, too. Heck, he even grew up in Phoenix, where the Bengals play the Cardinals (8 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 5), but the linebacker getting all the ink for coming home is Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

After all, Flowers is a rookie, a fifth-round pick, down to his last two games to show he belongs. Even during the week of his homecoming news broke that Burfict had reached a four-year extension with the Bengals and although he didn’t sign it Thursday, it could  happen Friday or before they get on the plane Saturday.

Flowers gets it.

“He went to Arizona State in Phoenix. I went to Arizona in Tucson. I can understand it,” Flowers said. “I’ll have a lot of family there. That’s what matters.”

Flowers may be going home, but he’s still looking for his roots in the dizzying back end of the Bengals linebackers room as they search for the backup corps behind the three starters and all-purpose Vincent Rey.

Whether the Bengals keep six or seven linebackers on their final 53-man roster largely depends on how the trio of Flowers, Jayson DiManche and Sean Porter play Sunday and in Thursday’s preseason finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the Colts. The backups are coming off a poor game against the Jets and are looking to regain their footing in a roster royale.

Throw in veteran safety Taylor Mays, who has been coming into their room the last week or so, as well as working in some drills with the linebackers, and this is the 21st century problem in a 19th century game.

Matt Burke, the Bengals’ new Ivy League educated linebackers coach who has been produced by the School of Hard Knocks during nine seasons coaching NFL linebackers, has so many different types of athletes at his disposal but only one scheme to integrate them.

Burfict is the rare bird nowadays, the guy that is big enough and fast enough and smart enough who can play all three downs against the run and pass. Burke had one of those guys in Detroit during his five years with the Lions, DeAndre Levy, and you can count them on A.J. Green’s gloves. For 4-3 backers in the NFL last year, Burfict and Levy were two of nine that played at least 1,000 snaps.

Rey Maualuga Is the quintessential old school middle backer. A first and second down mauler who can get people lined up.

“They don’t make them like him anymore. He’s a special player in the run game,’ said Burke, who played at Dartmouth and coached at Harvard before going to the pros. “People don’t realize the stuff he does in the run game. He thumps more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He hits linemen, he takes blocks on. I haven’t been around linebackers like that. That’s a valuable weapon to have.”

There are the college pass rushers trying to stand up for the first time. Like DiManche.

There are the hybrids. The guys that can cover and run like a DB against the passing game.  Mays is the poster child, a former second-round safety who has developed into a niche player in his fifth season. You’d have to think if they kept seven backers, Mays is the seventh and they keep three safeties.

Another hybrid is starting at SAM linebacker, the monstrous 6-4, 245-pound Emmanuel Lamur, a former college safety who plays the other backer spot with Burfict on passing downs.

Remember Lamur? Before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in last year’s preseason finale? In 2012 he was the other undrafted backer along with Burfict and he came off the practice squad to start a playoff game.

That’s OK. Burke has to remind himself Lamur has barely played and he’s happy to note the rust in the preseason opener is starting to wear off.

“You forget there’s some stuff he hasn’t seen and he hasn’t been through,” Burke said. “As a linebacker you have to see a lot of things. Run fits and schemes that are happening live and in real time and it builds muscle memory and he doesn’t have some of those experiences. He looks at you. You can see him go through the process and then you remember he hasn’t been through that before. We have to coach him up. He’s responded well the last few weeks. He’s a unique athlete.”

You have to put the 6-3, 240-pound Flowers in the hybrid category, too. Like Lamur, he’s a college safety, moving over to linebacker after getting 68 tackles and three passes defensed with nine starts at safety as a sophomore.

 But he talks like a linebacker.

“I’m similar to Lamur, but I play football. I do whatever I can to contribute,” Flowers said. “I’m a linebacker. I’ve bought into it.”

And then there is Porter. No one really knows about him. He’s looking at playing just is second preseason game despite getting drafted in the fourth round last year. When he tees it up Sunday, it will be one year and two weeks after he blew out his shoulder in practice. After injuring his knee just before the preseason opener, he’s ready.

What they do know of Porter is that of the prospects he’s the most traditional off-the-ball backer and he’s got a ton of experience with 41 starts at Texas A&M, where he was a captain. Burke says he’s conversant in the scheme but other than that, “I don’t want to say he’s behind. I don’t know.”

This is the kind of scene you’re getting. After Thursday’s practice, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons spent 10 minutes in the locker room runway working on technique with Porter and Flowers.

“It’s a good problem to have with different types of players and moving parts. You have to figure out what the best fit is,” Burke said. “We have to decide what the best roles are for these guys. How do we get the most out of their talents?

“We’re trying to put them in hard spots. ‘You have to be better at this, you have get better at this.’ …Right now I’m trying to put them in hard spots to make them better at their weaknesses, but as we move forward it has to be, What’s the best role for the guy on this team?’”

So maybe don’t look for DiManche in pass-rush situations, where he excelled at Southern Illinois before he signed last year as an undrafted rookie. He got plenty of work on special teams, where he had the second most tackles on the club. But he only played 47 snaps of defense at a relatively new position.

“He’s in the same boat as a lot of guys that haven’t played linebacker. He just hasn’t seen the run fits, or seen that stuff before,” Burke said. “He’s coming along on that stuff. He’s a natural pass rusher. He’s got some moves. He can dip.  That’s what he did in college. He bends off the edge. He blitzes real well. His development is coming as an off-the ball linebacker. Seeing the run game and fitting it up right. He’s got to get better at that.”

If they’re looking for a guy who has a knack for getting after the quarterback and chasing the ball, DiManche is the guy.

But Flowers, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns at Phoenix’s Millennium High School, is a different type of player. He’s an athlete and runner, so he may get put in pass-rushing spots to see how he does. Or, they may do what they did against the Jets after JK Schaffer got hit in the head and put him at middle backer relaying signals with the helmet phone and ask him to see how he does stopping the run. Schaffer won’t be playing Sunday.

“He’s a good space athlete. He can run, he can drop his weight so he can re-direct,” Burke said. “His physical part of the game he has to step up a little bit. Coming down hill and fitting in the runs. (In college) they never really asked him to do a lot of that.”

But Burke has asked plenty of Flowers here. He’s not only played the middle, he’s also played the WILL, as well as a spot in the nickel.

“The toughest adjustment is when you go out on the field changing your mindset,” Flowers said. “Either you’re the middle linebacker or the outside backer. Other than that, it’s just playing football.”

Flowers said he moved inside and outside at Arizona, but the move to an NFL middle has been eased by the daily council of the two MIKE backers in front of him, Maualuga and Rey. He says the helmet phone, “Actually helps me learn the other two linebacker spots and the MIKE and calling the signals and taking control of the defense.”

Even though he grew up in the desert, Flowers followed the Rams because of “The Greatest Show on Turf.” They were “fun to watch,’ and he ran right along with them. But now he’s a linebacker and he acted like it when he tweaked his ankle Saturday and had to go back in when Schaffer got hurt.

   “It was nothing,” he said. “I got some extra tape for support so I wouldn’t hurt the team. The trainers did a great job.”

But with two games left, he’s hoping the only tape job left is the one he puts on film.

 

 

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