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Matchup of the Game: Tez-Woodhead (reprise)

Posted Jan 3, 2014

Vontaze Burfict gutted out an ankle injury a month ago when the Bengals beat the Chargers in San Diego. Since then he's been named to the Pro Bowl and won the NFL tackling title to complete his rags-to-riches run.

BENGALS WLB VONTAZE BURFICT VS. CHARGERS RB DANNY WOODHEAD

When we last matched up Burfict and Woodhead 35 days ago before the Bengals played the Chargers in San Diego, we pushed the notion for Burfict for the Pro Bowl and as team MVP. He didn't disappoint and the Bengals will need another big day from Big Day Burfict this Sunday in the 1:05 p.m. wild card playoff game in a collision course against the Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium, where third downs go to die against the NFL's best third-down offense.

The next day Burfict turned his ankle in practice, spent the cross-country flight to San Diego in a boot, looked questionable until he talked head coach Marvin Lewis into playing him the morning of the game, and he delivered. The Bengals allowed just one touchdown, Woodhead caught just two balls out of the backfield for 13 yards, and Burfict roamed sideline to sideline for 98 percent of the snaps on his bum ankle and led the team with 13 tackles in a game the Bengals won, 17-10.

It will be recalled that head coach Marvin Lewis exclaimed moments after the game, "I think he has special powers and he used them all today. Most people wouldn’t have been able to play today. There’s no doubt in my mind, most people wouldn’t have been able to play. I had no doubt that he would play."

We keep seeing the same sequence this season. You've heard it here. No. 55 is the Jim Brown of the 21st century on defense. He explodes into a tackle, limps back up ever so slowly, barely gets back to the huddle, hunches over to call the play, claps his hands to break the huddle as if he's calling for a trainer, and then all of a sudden he comes alive with another bone-rattling hit.

Burfict shrugs. He's not trying to bait anybody.

"I never thought about that. Half of the time they don’t run my way. I have to at least run the ball down," Burfict says. "If they do come my way it’ll probably be a plus-two gain but just this week we’ve got to focus on the Chargers and that’s about it. We have a lot of guys banged up and hopefully we get this win and get them back for next week."

He's taken more shots than James Harrison at an acupuncture festival. The NFL's leading tackler plays all three downs and has played nearly 95 percent of the snaps.

"I’m not too good," Burfict says of his health, "but as a middle linebacker you’ve always got to pump it out and get ready for Sunday."

He's listed as an outside backer but he plays everywhere. Now after becoming the first Bengals linebacker to make the Pro Bowl in nearly 40 years, the Bengals need Burfict everywhere again. The Chargers haven't lost since that day and crafty quarterback Philip Rivers is operating a ball-hogging machine. In their four-game winning streak the Chargers haven't had had the ball fewer than 34:43, including nearly 37 minutes against the Giants and an improbable 39 minutes against Peyton Manning in Denver.

The Chargers lead the NFL in converting third downs. Not only does Burfict have to be mindful of Woodhead, second among AFC running backs with 17 third-down catches, but Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates, second among AFC tight ends with 22 third-down catches, is also going to be in his vision in different coverages.

A collision course.

The Bengals are second in the league at stopping third downs, holding foes to a ridiculous 23 percent at PBS on 24 of 104 snaps. Burfict has been the constant in a crazy-quilted third down package that has lost its best pass rusher and best cover corner for most of the year and has played the last month without its two starting corners. Meanwhile, he has lined up with a variety of other cover backers in the wake of early season-ending injuries to Emmanuel Lamur and Taylor Mays.

But if you want to know how far Burfict has come, you have to go all the way back to that first day back in May 2012 when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer watched extensive tape of Burfict's final college season the week he arrived for rookie minicamp undrafted out of Arizona State. Between the eye-rolling and shakes of the head, Zimmer and linebackers coach Paul Guenther thought they were looking at a long-term rehab project.

"He had some really bad stuff on tape," admits Guenther, who along with the scouts wrote up a pre-draft report. "He'd have five, 10 bad plays where he'd overrun the play or not get off the block or whatever. Then all of a sudden he'd have one great one and you'd see the silver lining. When I'm evaluating players, I want to see the great plays because that's what the guy can do."

They saw something else. When Zimmer and Guenther went back and looked at tape from the year before, they saw Burfict wasn't as heavy and was making more plays. And when he showed up in Cincinnati, the Bengals found he was serious, committed and extremely bright. During that first rookie practice, Lewis pulled aside Bengals president Mike Brown and said Burfict was going to be special. Zimmer and Guenther knew, too, but how long would it take and how consistent would he be?

In conversations around the building, Guenther began calling Burfict "The Devil," short for the Arizona State Sun Devils. But it was also a shot at all the critics who were way off base in the draft when they said Burfict couldn't be disciplined enough on the field to make it. Guenther was finding out just the opposite.

"He's done everything I asked," Guenther says. "Sometimes I had to keep him in the good graces of the church around here. He was the exiled guy (in the draft) and sometimes people have that first impression of you. But it didn't take long."

This is what the coaches love about Burfict: they can bring up a play from, say, the Miami game in October of his rookie year when he made his third start, and he'll remember it with, "Oh yeah, when we did this and that. I'm good."

"He's so smart as a player, I tell him that when he retires I'm making him come with me as a coach," Guenther says.

Coach Burfict is breaking down Sunday on that iPad in his head. The Chargers are so good on third down because they're so good on first and second down and get into third-and-shorts. That means the Bengals can't let rugged running back Ryan Matthews continue his best season, a 1,255-yard effort on 4.4 yards per carry. Plus he and Ronnie Brown are a combined 12-for-14 on third-and-one. And then there is Woodhead.

It may or may not help he has been Woodhead himself at times.

"They’re different," Burfict says of Matthews. "One’s a scatback, one likes to run power. Woodhead likes to catch the ball in space, 95 percent of the time he makes the first guy miss. We’ve just got to wrap up on him. He’s a small guy. He’s a great back, also. I was actually playing Madden and I had him on my fantasy team. He’s great. He’s always making the first guy miss. He’s fast and he can chuck the linebacker sometimes.

"They can run it. We can’t make them one-dimensional because if Rivers starts back there throwing it then you can be in trouble, and if Mathews starts running it you can be in trouble. We’ve just got to keep them balanced and send pressure and let them know that we’re always going to be back there."

Burfict smiles. No, he's not one of the guys that Woodhead "chucks" on Madden. According to Pro Football Focus, the NFL's leading tackler is also the league's most efficient tackling outside 4-3 backer with just three missed tackles in the running game and eight overall even though he's played the second-most snaps to Chad Greenway.

This game would seem to be a true test of Burfict's ability to stop the run and cover the pass. PFF has him as the third-best outside backer when it comes to run-stopping and fifth-best in coverage.

But what the guy brings to the defense on Sunday goes beyond numbers. Burfict has become the face of the NFL's third-best defense. Tough. Smart. Resilient. The respect slowly coming now as evidenced by the Pro Bowl vote and the oddsmakers making the Bengals seven-point favorites.

"Just his body language. He plays with that fire and that gets you going. It gets us all going," says defensive tackle Domata Peko. "If all of us play like that ... and that's what we've been doing."

Rivers has noticed and let Burfict know out in San Diego in December.

"I don’t know him other than the 60 minutes we played against him -- but if you draw up how’d you like your linebacker to play, that’s the dude you’d draw up," Rivers says. "He had that fire and made a couple tackles in the first game on our running backs and kind of looked at me like ‘You want some?’ And I was like ‘Shoot, you didn’t tackle me.' He’s just a heck of a player and that was obviously very clear in the Pro Bowl voting. I know that doesn’t mean everything, but he’s earned a lot of respect around the league, and playing against him that one time earlier this year, it’s very clear the player he was."

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