Balance of (North) power


Rey Maualuga

Posted: 7:05 a.m.

Because of his flowing hair and heritage, he is supposed to be the Bengals answer to Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and become the heart and soul of the defense. Because of the position he plays and the ferocity he brings, he is supposed to be the next Ray Lewis, the Ravens linebacker that inspires teammates as well as detonates opponents.

But the Bengals are finding out that as rookie SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga tries to tip the balance of power in the powerful AFC North, he's got his own brand and his own game. He left his imprint last Sunday in his first NFL victory with his first sack and later first forced fumble.

He's already got his own unique routine that he brought from USC. It surfaced before the second series in Green Bay and there was associate strength coach Ray Oliver on the sidelines pounding his shoulder pads as hard as he could three times.

Not two times. Not four times.

Three.

"Before I went on the field Coach Norton would always pump me up and I wanted to restart it here," Maualuga said of Trojans linebackers coach Ken Norton. "It's something called 'Touch my body.' You go out there and make a tackle. Touch my body. Go out there and you give it up as far as jumping, lunging, making a shoestring tackle."

Maualuga and two of his fellow former USC defenders, linebacker Keith Rivers and defensive end Frostee Rucker, have already brought one tradition where they get together and chant in warrior-like fashion. Before that second series, Maualuga felt like he needed more tradition and went looking for Oliver on the sidelines.

"We're close. Ray is a guy that pulled me aside and talked to me about life as well as football," he said. "He'll text me out of the blue, call me out of the blue just to talk, see how things are going off the field. What better guy to have than Ray to do it?"

After about the second time, Oliver wasn't so sure. Maualuga wanted him to hit him as hard as he could.

"He's wearing football equipment and I'm not. I'm going to have to go back to college and get some of my old pads," said Oliver, who donned them at both Ohio State and the University of Cincinnati. "I started hiding from him behind the Gatorade cups. Like I worked for the Packers. But he found me all the time like a corpse-sniffing dog. Great kid. A lot of passion. He'll be looking for me early Sunday."

Of course, that's what this division is all about.

As he prepares for that first AFC North game, Maualuga admits "I still have to do my research" on the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh rivalry, but he's got a pretty good idea about its physical nature. If he listened to his quarterback Wednesday, he heard him talk about the physical toll the division games take compared to the other games.

Maualuga has already heard the fans.

"Going around town, people talking about they dislike them, hate this and that, yada yada. The things they say," Maualuga said. "To me, it's just another game."

He knows what waits. He saw the video of Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward breaking Rivers' jaw on YouTube last year and he thinks he said, "Wow."

"It was like 'Welcome to the NFL,' " he said. "It's a much more physical, faster game."

But he didn't get drawn into the hitting off the field when asked how he would treat Ward on Sunday.

"If he has the ball, I'll tackle him. I'm not going out of my way to hit him for something that he did that was right. Just blocking for one of his players," Maualuga said. "I'm just going to continue to do what I do. If he has the ball, I'll just try to get it from him."

Truth be told, the only guy he'll be looking for is Oliver.

"You ever see those old films of guys like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke before a game?" Oliver asked. "Old school."

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