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Matchup of the Game: Practice makes Burfict as Tez lines up Woodhead

Posted Nov 27, 2013

If the following sounds like a case for Vontaze Burfict as the Bengals MVP heading into December, so be it.

BENGALS WLB VONTAZE BURFICT VS. CHARGERS RB DANNY WOODHEAD

If the following sounds like a case for Burfict as the Bengals MVP heading into December, so be it. Like the last time the Bengals won the AFC North in 2009, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's unit has carried the Bengals much of the way.

Consider that the Bengals offense has turned it over 22 times, third most in the AFC, while allowing three return touchdowns. Of the remaining 19 miscues, the defense has allowed just three TDs in sudden change and only once since Opening Day has a foe turned a turnover into a touchdown, and that's when the Ravens got the ball at the Cincinnati 11.

Of the 14 times the Bengals have turned it over on their side of the field, the defense has held the opponent to no points seven times with six punts and a missed field goal. They've allowed five field goals and just two touchdowns.

And the best player on that defense so far has been Burfict as he bids for the Pro Bowl in his second season. He not only leads the NFL tackles with 118, but he's been a mainstay in a nickel defense that is sixth in the league defending the pass. While playing all three downs, Pro Football Focus ranks Burfict as the league's best outside backer in coverage. Plus, he's so versatile that while his position of WILL backer is an outside spot, he's on the Pro Bowl ballot as an inside backer.

Burfict has played most of the season's 745 downs with a snap count bordering on 97 percent and Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham is hoping the return of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (knee, concussion) after a three-game absence gives Burfict a break. Maualuga usually plays on first and second downs and occasionally in nickel, but he and Vinny Rey can give Burfict a rest in either package.

"Tez is the most indispensable player on the defensive side of the ball, that's for sure," Lapham says. "If you don't have him, you're in trouble. He takes every snap. With Rey coming back, one thing he can provide is maybe giving him a breather. Even something like five snaps would be a good rest."

Burfict's coverage and tackling skills are going to be put to the test by the 5-8, 200-pound water-buggy Woodhead, leading all NFL running backs with 59 catches, 469 receiving yards and five touchdown catches while PFF has him ranked with the fifth-most yards in the league after catch among running backs.

"He does most of his damage out of the backfield, but they will put him in the slot sometimes," Lapham says. "The key is going to be how the linebackers deal with him. You've got to limit him after the catch."

"A lot," Burfict says when asked what Woodhead presents. "He can catch, run, he's good. It will take all 11 to stop him. On the checkdowns you just have to tackle him. I just have to know where my help is at. If I miss, I know what side to err on. Other people seem not to tackle him. For me, just knowing where my help is whether its Cover 2, Cover 3 or man."

That's basically how Burfict rocked Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya last time out to force a fumble for his first NFL touchdown on one of those passes out of the backfield he'll see plenty on Sunday against Woodhead. Knowing lineman Wallace Gilberry had Ogbonnaya by the legs, Burfict lowered his shoulder, popped the ball loose and 13 yards later he was running up the visitor's tunnel.

"I knew my other guy was coming so I didn't have to wrap up. So I just came with my shoulder and jarred the ball loose and it was like Christmas," Burfict says. "I saw him come in from the back so I felt I could just come in and not hit my teammate and hit the ball."

The Bengals compare Woodhead, the New England refugee, to the back the Chargers let go to New Orleans a few years back, multi-dimensional Darren Sproles, the man that helped make Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers a franchise guy. It’s no coincidence that the Sproles-like Woodhead has been at the center of Rivers's revival as a target all over the place ranging from the slot to coming out of the backfield.

"Woodhead is their Darren Sproles," says nickel back Chris Crocker. "Very shifty guy, they try to get him the ball in open spaces. He's good at what he does. He's very elusive. He beats a lot of guys in one-on-ones. Very dangerous.

"He adds an element when you get a guy like that on a linebacker or just get him in space. He knows what to do with the ball. He runs good routes and in the running game he always finds a hole and makes some cuts. He's a good back, he's a solid guy."

Rivers has been raving about Woodhead a lot longer than that.

"No disrespect to the other free agents we signed, but I think he’s the biggest signing we had in the offseason," Rivers told the Cincinnati media Wednesday.

Take last week in the final drive of the game in Kansas City when Rivers authored a come-from-behind victory secured in a two-minute drill with a touchdown. On back-to-back plays, Woodhead took swing passes out of the backfield and broke plays of 19 and 14 yards, respectively.

"Last week he had a touchdown reception, he had a rushing touchdown and in that last two-minute drive he made two catches on swing routes and turned them into big gains. He’s been big for us," Rivers said. "He’s very versatile. He’s not just a pass catcher. He had six or so carries for 25 yards last week. He sprinkles in the run. Best way I can describe him is a football player. He’s smart, he’s gritty, he’s tough and he can fly, too. He can really run. He’s very quarterback-friendly to throw the ball to. He understands coverages. He understands what it looks like from our point of view back there.

"He’s not just a pass catcher. We like to hand it to him. He’s a runner. We’ve seen teams key on him a little more the last few weeks to try to keep him from getting clean releases and things like that."

If Woodhead has the math with leverage, Burfict knows much about geometry.

"He's got his doctorate in football geometry; his angles are perfect," Lapham says. "He has the uncanny ability to play the perfect angle. He knows what he can do and what he can't do. He's a football computer mentally. He's a one in a however many years kind of player."

Burfict got his first AFC Defensive Player of the Week award last week, but he couldn't care less. In fact, his reaction to the award is "I don't care. It wasn't because of me. It's a team thing. Zim had a good lead on what they were going to do and he called good plays."

Athough head coach Marvin Lewis called out Burfict last week for his 15-yard unnecessary roughness call against the Browns, on Wednesday Burfict remained determined to protect his teammates.

"I think that brings a little bit of emotion. I think guys feed off of that," Burfict says. "The Browns were pushing Vinny (Rey) and then I pushed a guy. We shut them down on the next drive and fed a fire under the defense.”

It's a fire that Rivers can see from the The Coast when he watches tape.

"He sure is around the ball a lot. He seems to play reckless. Reckless within the scheme. He throws his body around and plays reckless," Rivers says. "A lot like when Rey (Maualuga) was here his rookie year in '09. I thought he was as reckless of a linebacker as I’ve seen. He was diving over people and getting flipped by running backs and just seemed to throw his body around like crazy. And he’s still that way. I know he’s dealing with a little bit of an injury. But 55 seems to be the same way. And obviously (Vinny Rey) been playing really well the last few weeks. And obviously James Harrison. I respect the heck out of him. I could go down the list. There’s a lot of recognizable names around this league. We’ve got our hands full."

So does Burfict. With five games left, he could be holding his team's MVP trophy.

 

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