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Maualuga on deck for hot-hitting backers

Posted Nov 21, 2013

When Rey Maualuga returns to middle linebacker next week, he desperately wants to pick up where he left off when he just so happened to be playing the best of his five seasons.

Maybe in another year Rey Maualuga would have taken the bye week off and jetted home to California. Maybe.

"They gave me some time off, but there's no time off when you're trying to get to where you want to get," Maualuga says. "I'll be here getting treatment. No celebrating. No going out of town. No spending a week with my family. I have to worry about getting my butt on the field. Working out."

When Maualuga returns to middle linebacker next week from his three-game absence and the knee sprain and concussion he suffered Oct. 27 stuffing running back Chris Ivory of the Jets on third-and-one, he desperately wants to pick up where he left off when he just so happened to be playing the best of his five seasons.

"I was playing the football I was supposed to be playing. There's no excuse for it. It's not like I let loose," Maualuga said. "It's the guys around me, obviously, and it's knowing what I need to do. Knowing my position. Not having to worry about others. Just my job. Just playing ball."

Heightening Maualuga's excitement and anticipation is how those guys around him have played. The man on one side of him, WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, is bidding for the Pro Bowl in a race he's been endorsed by his position coach while also being admonished not to play "junior college" football. In his second season, Burfict is on a torrid tackling stretch that has put him on top of the NFL and gave him AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his effort this past Sunday.

The man on the other side, SAM linebacker, James Harrison, arguably won last Sunday's game for the Bengals with an interception and heroic but futile touchdown return that ignited 31 straight points from a 13-0 deficit while playing his most snaps as a Bengal in matching Burfict's No. 55 jersey.

And the man who replaced Maualuga in the middle, Vinny Rey, would have been Player of the Week two weeks ago in Baltimore if his three sacks and interception weren't spoiled by an overtime loss.

Linebackers coach Paul Guenther points to one of the signs in his room. "How Can You Help Us Win?"

"Then right after James's interception Jayson DiManche comes in and blocks a punt," Guenther says of the Southern Illinois undrafted rookie that he wanted so badly he urged one of the league's highest free-agent bonuses at $15,000.

"Our guys do a great job of feeding off each other. Whether it's defense or special teams. How can you help us win? What's your role? It can be ever-changing. We've got guys on the shelf (Emmanuel Lamur, fourth-rounder Sean Porter, nickel backer Taylor Mays, Brandon Joiner). James is playing more nickel. Vinny Rey is a special teams guy who's starting. It's amazing because all of our guys have been on the field."

Guenther easily ticks off the reasons for Maualuga's emergence. His conditioning, his comfort level with three straight years in the same position, and his confidence in the face of the cyberspace criticism he takes so much to heart.

Guenther has told Maualuga about the view he has when he settles into the Paul Brown Stadium coaching box on game day.

"There are more Maualuga jerseys in that stadium than any other player when I look around," Guenther says. "No question he's mentally more confident. He used to let people get to him. I tell him, '50 percent are going to like you, 50 percent are going to hate you, 100 percent are going to talk about you.' He understands what kind of player he can be."

And then there are Maualuga's two-a-day workouts in the offseason in Los Angeles that are paying off, as well as the early days on the field in OTAs and training camp.

"Honestly, he's stronger and better conditioned than he's ever been," Guenther says. "He's doesn't get as tired as fast. And he's cleaned up what he did his first couple of years (in the middle). Not overrunning plays, using his hands. Rey's biggest asset is he's physical. When he's in the running game, you know it.

"Our biggest charge in the offseason as a linebacking corps is to get better downhill striking people with their hands. You see so many linebackers these days on tape just running around blocks and then the backs cut off and run around them. We've done a real good job emphasizing that and they've taken it into the games."

Before Maualuga got hurt one of the keys to his success is that in contrast to his two previous seasons at middle backer, he played mostly first and second down and not so much in pass coverage. He was also playing some nickel with Mays, depending on the situation and the opponent, but he wasn't logging 100 percent of the snaps.

In his last two games before getting hurt against the Jets, Maualuga played 75 percent of the downs against the Bills followed by 71 percent against the Lions after playing just 55 percent against the Patriots. Since both he and Mays got hurt in the same game, the Bengals have to decide if they use Maualuga more in nickel now that he's back, but they may just stick with Vinny Rey.

"It seems like every time we watch tape we've got a different combination," Guenther says of the two-man tandem in nickel. "It's been Vontaze and E-Man or Vontaze and Rey or Vontaze and Vinny, and we've even had James out there. It depends on what works to our advantage."

Notice who never comes off the field. Burfict has been immense, not only running sideline to sideline, but also wearing the helmet connected to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer on the sideline as he gets everyone lined up. That used to be Maualuga. While he still sets the front, Maualuga seems to thrive on just playing, but having Burfict has helped in more ways than one.

"The passion that he plays with makes that competitive nature even more intense," Maualuga says. "I sort of feed off of that because I'm trying to get to the ball before he does. It makes it a competition. It makes it a game out there for the two of us when I'm out there with him."

What more can Burfict do? He plays every snap. He sets the huddle and gets his teammates lined up. He leads the league in tackles and according to Pro Football Focus, his sixth-rated tackling efficiency in the NFL is the most impressive.

"Our stats show that a linebacker is 28 percent more likely to miss a tackle in coverage than against the run," PFF says. "That hasn’t slowed down Burfict, though, as he’s racked up 49 tackles in coverage, the second-highest figure among linebackers, compared to just three missed tackles."

A lot of the Bengals coaches can't stand independent graders because they have long argued they don't know what a player's assignment is in the scheme of the defense on each different snap. For instance, when Burfict made one of his most stunning plays of the year (knocking Ravens left guard A.Q. Shipley out of the game and flat on his back with concussion-like symptoms on a simple jolt across the line of scrimmage), Burfict freelanced into the hole because he knew from tendencies where the play was going.

"I think so, yes," Guenther says, when asked if he's a Pro Bowler. "I'm biased. But I don't know who is playing better than him at linebacker. He knows the defense so well because he came in and learned it from the ground up. He almost never misses a step."

The only question facing Burfict is if head coach Marvin Lewis's shot across the bow at him during Monday's news conference registered. Lewis was still livid with Burfict for pushing Browns center Alex Mack after a play and then saying he retaliated because he was standing up for his teammates.

Guenther has been working with Burfict on channeling his emotion ever since he came undrafted out of Arizona State, in large part because of his undisciplined play. But Guenther knows Pro Bowl passion when he sees it and he's trying to find just the right combination.

"He's such a good player. He doesn't need all that stuff. I tell him I don't ever want a non-aggressive, non-passionate guy as a linebacker," Guenther says. "But you’ve got to funnel it in the right way. You can't tee off on somebody after the whistle. You can't do it. It's not junior college football. He gets it. I just think sometimes the emotion gets the best of him. It gets the best of me at times. You just have to learn to harness it. That's what we're working on right now."

Maualuga is working, too. He looked so good when he worked out on the field last Sunday morning before the game that the Bengals mulled activating him.

"We figured he was so close, why not give him two more weeks and make sure he's 100 percent for San Diego," Guenther says.

For now, he won't say bye during the bye.

"New year, man," Maualuga says.

 

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