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Matchup of the Game: Bengals unveil V-Neck look with Vontaze, Vigil

Posted Oct 5, 2017

Call it the V-Neck look of Vontaze, Vigil, and versatility, a tandem that Bengals linebackers coach Jim Haslett believes is one of the better in the NFL. It has to be Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12) because Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy looms.

Nick Vigil has been around the ball all year.

          BENGALS OLBS VONTAZE BURFICT, NICK VIGIL VS.  BILLS RB LESEAN MCCOY

Vigil, the second-year kid, is coming off his break-out game with his speedy tackling and cover skills. Burfict, suddenly a six-year vet and one of the top players in the game, is just coming back with his razor instincts and explosive play after making his season debut last week. Bengals linebackers coach Jim Haslett has seen them play just about 50 snaps together, all of them last week in Cleveland, and already he thinks it’s a tandem to be reckoned with around the NFL.

“It’s a good combination. I think it’s one of the better ones in the league,” Haslett says. “It’s a good combination because they have different skill sets. They work together well and they like playing next to each other. I know Nick has a lot of respect for Vontaze and I think Vontaze sees Nick as a young guy with a lot of talent and good against the pass that can help you win.”

Call it the V-Neck look of Vontaze, Vigil, and versatility and it has to be one of the league’s best linebacker combos Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12) because not only is McCoy headed for Burfict and Vigil with the Bills’ bevy of stretch zone runs as the NFL most prolific runner of the last nine years, but Haslett believes he’s the best receiving back in the league. Throw in opportunistic tight end Charles Clay (only Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce have caught more yards among AFC tight ends) and the clever running and passing of quarterback Tyrod Taylor with his struggling stable of wide receivers and it’s going to be a volatile game in the box. And that’s where Sunday will be won or lost.

 “When he touches the ball, he’s scary. Kind of reminds me when we played Barry Sanders,” says Haslett, who coached against the Hall-of-Famer in the ‘90s. “Every time he touched the ball you’d go. ‘Oohhhhh.’ When you tackled him it was, ‘Whew.’ He can jump cut. He can get to the edge. The scary part is when he’s in space he’s hard to catch. It’s a great challenge for Nick and Vontaze covering him and Clay. Both run and pass.”

The first four games of the season are why the Bengals drafted Vigil in the third round out of Utah State last year. He leads the team in tackles, he’s got a pick, and he’s got a sack while playing the 10th most snaps of any linebacker in the league with 265 as a versatile sort that can run, cover, and make a big play in the running game like he did on Browns running back Isaiah Crowell on the game’s second series that set up a missed field goal.  As he was piling up 137 snaps in the last two weeks (“Too many,” Haslett says), Haslett went to him to make sure he was OK and the kid said he was fine.

“I don’t know too many (linebackers) around the league that have played four games as well as he’s played,” Haslett says. “Hopefully he’s got 12 more in him. He’s a good kid. He’s humble. He’s smart. I don’t know if he’s as smart as Vontaze, but I know they’ve got a lot of respect for each other.”

Vontaze Burfict has been a Nick Vigil guy from the start.

From the minute Vigil came in Burfict has embraced his play and pumped him up to anybody who would listen. He started call him “Luke,” in honor of Burfict’s friend, Panthers Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly because of his style of play and mannerisms.  This year Burfict pronounced that Vigil deserved to be called his own name and last Sunday in Cleveland while the media probed Burfict about his first game back from suspension he put the spot light on Vigil and said he deserved the game ball.

Which tells you as much about Burfict as it does Vigil and gives you an idea why teammates swear by Burfict in the fox hole. Everyone was talking about Vigil’s first NFL sack and team-leading 11 tackles but Burfict also noticed his two special teams tackles. The team was listening and gave Vigil a game ball. When Haslett went back to watch the tape, he marked Vigil for 14 tackles.

“It's good when one of the best players on the team kind of takes you in,” Vigil says. “And helps you out and helps you learn stuff and accepts you in the group. It's something that really helped me out early on.”

Vigil hardly played last season and Burfict didn’t play much this preseason, so last Sunday was sort of their debut as the two dynamic backers in the nickel package when it mattered. And Burfict was still helping.

“Just how smart he is. Offenses are keying on him. They’re knowing where he’s at all the time so that frees up stuff for me.  They have to keep an eye out for him,” Vigil says. “He can call out plays before they happen. He helps me out with tips before the snap, and then when we come to the sideline we talk about it. It helps you out throughout the game. He's just seen things so many times, he comes out and sees the offensive formation and where guys are lined up and he can pretty much tell you what's going to happen most plays. Most of the times he's right. It's not very often he's wrong. Might as well just trust him, and if something else happens just play it out.”

Sunday’s challenge puts their vaunted versatility on display. Buffalo’s feared running game is led by offensive line coach Rick Dennison’s brutally efficient zone scheme straight out of Gary Kubiak’s playbook. It’s been tough on Marvin Lewis teams. Before Kubiak retired, Lewis never beat him despite playing such quarterbacks ranging from T.J. Yates to Brock Osweiler and Taylor is one of those rare guys that can turn into a running back while completing 66 percent of his passes.

Linebackers coach Jim Haslett thinks he's got one of the top tandems in the league.

“That's something you have to be on point with, because when McCoy's not getting it, Taylor is passing it, and he's as good a runner as anybody in the league and he's a quarterback,” Vigil says. “So you've got to have eyes on him.”

So not only is covering McCoy nasty, but you can’t Taylor pull the ball down and go once you turn.

“They're as good as anybody's,” Vigil says of McCoy’s pass routes. “You see how he cuts. Not a lot of people can cover him, so it will be a good challenge this week.”

Not only is Burfict going to be next to him Sunday, but he’s hoping another guy that has helped him immensely is going to be in the building. His older brother Zach is a linebacker on the Bills practice squad who has been a sounding board for him throughout his life and he hopes he makes the trip.

But it comes down to snaps and now Vigil is getting them and getting better.

“It’s what I’ve always said. It seems like the more reps you get, the faster you play,” Vigil says. “The more times you see it, the more you recognize it and you can diagnose the play faster. That’s been a little better for me this year.  The more reps you get you understand where your leverage is at, where you have help is, where you can miss and where you can’t.”

He says the Bills’ running game has to be attacked and he says McCoy’s ability to make people miss is going to put a premium on his tackling, the part of his game he wants to improve the most.

“Just be physical at the line of scrimmage. You have to win at the line of scrimmage. You have to be stout in your gaps. Can’t get washed by the play. You have to stand firm coming down and take off the double teams on the D-line,” Vigil says. “He's elusive, probably the most elusive back in the league. He can do a lot of things, catch the ball out of the backfield, make a guy miss with not a lot of space to work with. You've got to be good at tackling. You've got to wrap up.” 

Haslett’s advice is “grab cloth,” and if that’s old school, it is and that opens an intriguing back story.

McCoy is a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania guy who played at the University of Pittsburgh and has had the kind of NFL career Haslett believes has been overlooked a bit because he’s kind of an old-school guy that isn’t so boisterous while being a threat on all three downs. Haslett is a Pittsburgh guy that played at Indiana of Pennsylvania before becoming the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year for these Bills and a symbol of that team’s blue-collar rise to the top in the ‘80s as one of the league’s roughest and toughest linebackers.

Now decades later they call Haslett, “Old School,” but he’s got two thoroughly modern guys in Burfict and Vigil that could have lined up next to him in Buffalo as three-down players. Haslett is relying on their smarts, speed, and cover ability to help conquer the high-tech pass games.

“Deep down that’s my team. That’s who I played for a long time,” Haslett says. “Besides this game, you want them to win. I love the people of Buffalo. Great fans who love the city. I love going back for the reunions. It’s a great place to play.”

We know where Haslett stands on Burfict. He welcomes him to the Old School as an extremely tough, physical player that has worked to adhere to the evolving player safety rules. He wasn’t buying Sunday’s roughing the passer call.

“I don’t think it was roughing,” Haslett says. “It was one step. He tackled him. He didn’t put his weight on him. He just ran through him. I thought it was a good clean shot.”

With the Bengals allowing slightly less than 17 points per game and the Bills allowing 13.5 points per and neither offense averaging 18.5 points per, everyone is expecting one of those games. An Old School linebacker 16-13 kind of game.

 

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