The Bengals’ new defensive staff came in looking for intangibles, the kind that are in scouting reports and not headlines, and that’s a big reason why starting middle linebacker Preston Brown signed a three-year deal Wednesday.
No doubt coordinator Lou Anarumo has more on his plate than that as he re-tools the linebackers corps. With the status of some of the backers up in the air as the staff puts together primarily a 4-3 scheme, it’s a big box that had to be checked. Similar things were at play on the other side of the ball in the re-signing of tight end C.J. Uzomah. They’re two young vets, both 26, well regarded among their mates.
“His experience and leadership skills you learn over the years are invaluable in this league at the linebacker position,” said linebackers coach Tem Lukabu, shortly after he checked in to see if the ink was dry on Brown’s deal. “Coach Lou and myself felt that was very important to keep that in the building. If you go back and look at his track record, last year was more of an anomaly than the norm.”
Lukabu thinks he can do a lot more than lead. They have virtually erased the 2018 tape when it comes to the 6-1, 255-pound Brown, vowing to be his NFL-lightest 240 pounds by the time he takes the practice field in May. When he signed a year ago with his hometown team, Brown had never missed a game in Buffalo and never played fewer than 93 percent of the snaps in his four seasons with the Bills. In 2016 and 2017, he played 99 percent each season and after finishing sixth in the league in tackles in 2016 he won the title in ’17 with 144. That’s the tape the Bengals are watching. And before he got hurt there were coaches on the old staff last year saying they had to re-sign him and the new staff did.
“What I know about Preston is he works, he’ll lead, he’s a leader by example and, to be frank, you don’t lead the league in tackles by accident,” Lukabu said. “At the end of the day, we know what he’s good at and how he can help us.”
Yes, Virginia, there is still room for a relentless middle linebacker that plugs the run in this thing that the NFL brain trust and college gurus have turned into seven-on-seven. It’s funny how when the weather turns it morphs back into 11-on-11. The staff discussed how much room there is for a middle backer and in the end they came up with some space, keeping in mind that the Patriots went big on offense in the season’s last quarter to smash to the Super Bowl title.
“He can stop the run and there’s still a huge place for that,” Lukabu said. “We’re playing in the AFC North where you’re going to be vying for the division in November and December. You better be able to stop the run. That’s the mentality we’ve got to have. We’re still playing football. You have to be careful there. He’s a good enough football player he knows what he’s doing in the pass game and his strength in the running game is invaluable.”
Brown, the pride of Northwest High School, feels at home in either game even though the Bengals often took him off the field on passing downs. He gets it and he says he’ll do whatever it takes to help. But now that he’s been cleared from the two injuries that limited him to seven games last season, calcification in an ankle that nagged him since the opener and the season-ending MCL sprain in his knee, Brown says he can get back out there again on any down.
But he knows he has to cut weight. He’s literally been in the middle of the game’s transition, so he knows where it’s headed.
“You have to go with (less) weight when you see what those 205-pound guys are doing,” Brown said. “You have to join a little bit. We’ll see how low I can go. When November comes around you get a little heavier with the Gold Star.”
Brown has been around long enough to know there are two sets of games out there. And not passing and running. Perception and reality.
“I’m trying to get to 240. That’s the goal. They think you’re faster and cover better,” said Brown, who played at about 245-250 last year. “If you’re (239), you’re a great cover guy so hopefully I get down there. I feel like I can be physical at any weight. I feel like I can cover at any weight. It’s just the perception. If you’re 239 they’re going to think you’re a better cover guy. I haven’t given up a (passing) touchdown since my rookie year, but they think you can’t cover. So I have to find a way to get better. If I get five interceptions at 250 (perception) goes away.”
Talk about perception. The irony is that last season’s injuries robbed his hometown of seeing the NFL Brown at work. It started out like a dream. On Opening Day on his second Bengals snap he picked off the Colts’ Andrew Luck in the red zone. But a few series later he turned his ankle and limped the rest of the way until he hurt his knee.
“My time is here,” is what Brown was thinking with that interception plucked while wearing a Bengals jersey. “Then you roll your ankle and you have to take pills just to play. Everything was compromised. Practices were the toughest thing. I hated watching myself on film the way I was hopping around. It wasn’t me. It just wasn’t fun.”
But Brown can feel the excitement starting to stir in him. He’s healthy again and he can show Cincy what it was missing.
“It’s not frustrating. It’s exciting,” Brown said. “They don’t really know. Once we get the season started, we’ll find out.”