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Middle of it all

Posted Jun 7, 2012


Vontaze Burfict

None of first-year Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther's 11 players have missed his daily "Do You Want To Be Great Meeting?" this spring and since starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has been to all of them, that means rookie understudy Vontaze Burfict has been to each one, too.

"I watch everything that Rey does," Burfict said after Wednesday's practice. "I mean, I literally watch everything he does. He's probably thinking, 'Man, this guy is watching me too much.' "

No problem. Maualuga did it himself as a rookie in 2009 when he was asked to make the switch from the middle to SAM. And when he made the switch back from the SAM to middle last year, he didn't have the benefit of these nine organized team activities (OTAs) that end Thursday.

So ask away. It reminds him how he never strayed far from starter Rashad Jeanty as a rookie.

"I know he's coming into a fresh, new start. Every time I come off the field he asks why I did what I did," Maualuga said. "Why I did it this way and not that way. I looked at Rashad that way."

Middle backer, quarterback of the defense, is one of the more interesting dynamics crackling with subplots in Bengaldom this spring.

As he comes back from his severe high ankle sprain and seeks that breakout year, Maualuga says he's as comfortable as he's ever been as a Bengal as he tries to make more plays with less information. Burfict, the NFL's most celebrated college free agent this year, has opened eyes with his movement despite the heavy amount of data he's digested since rookie minicamp began four weeks ago.

Maualuga has been reminding everybody this is his first OTA as a middle backer.

"It gives everyone an opportunity to get the mental reps, the physical reps they need as far as the rookies to be on top of things so when camp comes," Maualuga said of the spring. "It's just basically redo the playbook and second nature."

And both seem to be thriving.

Paul Brown Stadium observers are saying not only is Maualuga playing faster, but he's also playing with a smile on his face. Guenther says he doesn't recall Maualuga making a mental mistake in the OTAs. Burfict, who came in with the hard knocks of being undisciplined and lacking instincts, has drawn the praise of Guenther for how he continues to play fast even though he's been saddled with making the calls out of a foreign playbook. With what looks to be two backer spots available and players like 2011 third-round pick Dontay Moch and 2010 fourth-rounder Roddrick Muckelroy in the mix, Burfict has asserted himself as no longer a long shot.

"He's making the natural progression for a young player to the Xs and Os and he's doing it with very little error," Guenther said.

Burfict, who managed to say everything wrong in the weeks leading up to the draft, has done the exact opposite in the 27 days he's been here.

"I'm not happy with what I'm done," Burfict said after Wednesday's practice, despite the coaching praise. "I'm second-guessing myself because I'm not 100 percent sure what to do. That just comes with time.

"The biggest adjustment has been the playbook. Day by day. We put new things in. You can't be overwhelmed with all the calls, all the formations. Like nickel and base. You just have to stay on top of your playbook and that's the biggest thing right now."

Both seem to be warming to Guenther's approach. During "The "Do You Want To Be Great?" Meeting, he pulls out 25 plays from the day before and calls them "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," and he and his players go over why.

"I think this kind of lets them put it behind them and we can get on to the next day," Guenther said.

Maualuga says the coaches have simplified things for him but Guenther is quick to say they haven't because they feel like he was smart enough last year to pick up the calls and run the huddle.

"It's not simplified; it's just a different way to look at it," Guenther said. "The way I look at it, if you give a 4.5 player (in the 40-yard dash) a lot more information, you make a 4.5 player a 4.6. If you give a 4.6 player all that, you make him a 4.7 player: 'This is your job. This is where your eyes should be. This is where your responsibility is.' Just rep it."

Or, as Maualuga says, "It's a good approach."

Last year he started well before suffering the injury when he tried to make a leaping interception and came down on his ankle in an Oct. 13 practice. The ankle of the same lower leg Maualuga broke in his 15th game as a rookie. It was never right when he came back after missing three games. Maualuga still wonders if he should have let backup Dan Skuta play healthy.

"I felt like I was playing scared, or playing worried. At times you saw where I was getting cut-blocked, so every time someone would get low I would just give out and was just protecting my ankle first," he said. "I was playing wrong football, as far as I didn’t want to reinjure my ankle and be done with the season. At times I felt like I was playing selfish. They could have put someone out there that could have done more than I could have. Just going out there and letting the coach know that I was fine when really I was not. I wasn’t playing to my potential due to the fear of reinjuring my ankle."

Maualuga also struggled with overrunning plays. Everything had to be so quick that he seemed to be rushing it, which helped lead to holes like those running backs Ray Rice of Baltimore and Arian Foster of Houston exploited in the final two games of last season.

"It's going good, but you get antsy; you want to be there real fast," Maualuga said. "You tend to lose sight of where the ball carrier is. Just tone it down a little bit. Coach will say you read plays so fast. Just slow it down and let them come to you."

Burfict doesn't have that luxury. He admires how Maualuga anticipates plays before they happen. "But I can't because I don't know their playbook," he says.

But Burfict says he's responded to Guenther's methods. He's been in his office for one-on-ones, but Guenther doesn't like watching what he calls "90 minutes of tape," and prefers to go over it on the field after they break down small chunks.

"Paul has taught me some things about defense I didn't know in college," Burfict said. "About my placement. Where to line up before the snap and I get a little cheat. Just things like that. Paul will break things down, especially since I'm a rookie and the vets already know the playbook, he'll break things down so I can understand it and so I can go out there and play. Reading the playbook is so easy, but then going out there playing full speed is a little harder."

Maualuga can help because he's been there, done that. In fact, it was only last year.

"My mindset is I can't call the play and try to get everybody lined up and at the same time get back in the huddle tell everybody to run to the football and be that leader everybody wants because I've got a lot of things floating around in my head," Maualuga said. "I was still trying to adapt too. At the same time I was trying to second-guess myself and I couldn't try to do two things at once. Now I feel a lot more comfortable; hopefully that side of me will come out sooner rather than later."

Maualuga can see Burfict in the same stages of development. Yes. He's watching him watching him.

"He's done a good job," Maualuga said. "He looks comfortable out there. It's natural for him to be at the right place at the right time, but we're throwing in something new every day that he didn't learn in rookie minicamp. It's a little difficult for him to memorize."

Which is why Burfict is watching Maualuga's every move.

No problem.

"We feed off each other," Maualuga said.

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