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Captain Tez leads new-look backers


Vontaze Burfict

If left end Robert Geathers is The Dean and tackle Geno Atkins is The Best Player and cornerback Leon Hall is the Stately Secretary of the Secondary and James Harrison is The Baddest Hired Gun in the West ambling into Paul Brown Stadium, then what does that make WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict at the tender age of 22 in just his second season on one of the NFL's best defenses?

It just well might make him The Captain.

Burfict now wears the Bat Phone helmet that has the direct line to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, which is rated R by the censors but the NFL's top six by Elias. He sets the huddle, he calls the play and he never comes off the field.

Captain Tez?

"He's a smart kid. He knows football, he understands the big picture," Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther said after Wednesday's practice. "He understands what the offense is trying to do. Guys say, 'Wow, this guy really knows his stuff.' And now guys look up to him."

Burfict will really have to know his stuff at Soldier Field in Sunday's opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Bears when the beat-up Bengals linebackers are going to be under the microscope against Bears rookie head coach Marc Trestman's creative offense that threatens all points of the field.

The season-ending injury to Emmanuel Lamur, Cincinnati's best cover linebacker, leaves the Bengals with just five backers and no one that can really do what Burfict and Lamur do on third down.

So safety Taylor Mays, on the bubble before Lamur's shoulder popped out in Thursday night's preseason finale after losing his starting job to George Iloka, is suddenly being reinvented as a linebacker.

Ever since the 6-3, 230-pound Mays arrived in a trade two years ago and couldn't break into the starting lineup despite his speed, size and strength, everyone wanted him to be a linebacker.

Presto. Now he is in pass defense and Mays is wondering if this is the position that really fits him.

"It's the same thing as when a safety inserts into the box," Mays said. "Some of the run gap fits are a little different. Paul does a good job of teaching and making things simple. I've been picking it up quick.

"They've been talking about it before. I think when E-man went down that's what makes the most sense. We have the same body type. It just made sense ... maybe naturally for me it's a little better. More in the box and could be a better position for me. I felt good about it and excited. It's the kind of plays that I can make."

Unbelievably, Guenther has starred in this movie before. The Bengals lost their best nickel player for the second time in 349 days when Lamur went down against the Colts last Thursday night. On the Thursday before last season's home opener against Cleveland, Thomas Howard blew out an ACL that is still rehabbing. When the Bengals brought him in for a workout Tuesday, there wasn't even a rustle of a signing.

Back then, Guenther tapped Burfict even though he had never played a snap at WILL. Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly won Defensive Rookie of the Year, but Burfict could have if he wasn't undrafted because after he came off the bench against the Browns, he started the rest of the games and racked up 174 tackles.

"Just like last year with Howard and Burfict," Guenther said. "Same situation. Same teaching and really teaching him the same way as Vontaze. We've been watching Chicago for some time now and just understanding what they are doing with alignments and blitzes along with it. He's doing good. I think he'll do real good in the game and I don't think he'll miss a beat."

Guenther says he's using the same method on Mays that he used to teach Burfict on such short notice. Burfict spent much of those 72 hours in the Paul Brown Stadium gym as Guenther rearranged a group of 11 chairs in varying formations to speed up recognition of alignments and blitzes.

Mays, who is attending the backers meetings and is practicing with them, has an edge on Burfict since it's his third year in the system and fourth in the league. So the question isn't so much if Mays knows, but if he can do it physically. Burfict's instincts combined with an ability to cover are rare.

"He can play in the back half on some of the things. He's versatile. Trying to get him ready the same way. It worked last year so hopefully it will be the same way this year," Guenther said of Mays. "He's a lot like Emmanuel, body size, ability, coverage-wise. Obviously it will be something a little bit new but it goes along with our system as far as the rules and all those things. Little bit of a different alignment and he'll be good at it."

Burfict has gone from a crash course to crashing the party and is developing into an extension of Guenther and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer on the field a la Dhani Jones.

"I've come very far. I feel like I'm taking a role as a defensive leader, more vocal, a leader on the field," Burfict said. "For me I just want to make sure everyone is on the same page out there. If the safety or corner mess up, it's my bad. I didn't communicate to them. I take full responsibility for what happens out there."

Burfict sees this as a tag team with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.

"I set the huddle and tell them the huddle call and Rey sets the front," Burfict said. "It's a team game. Me and Rey take full responsibility to whatever happens out there and the communication part, that's me because I have to tell the safeties, the corner, the D-line what the play is."

Burfict doesn't turn 23 until two days after the third game of the season. But he sounds like the position has aged him.

"There's more weighing on me. I feel like I need to make more plays than I did last year because I'm not a rookie anymore," Burfict said. "Plays that I missed last year I feel I need to improve this year, which is coverage and blitzing."

Maualuga admits that not having the headset has taken some of the pressure off him.

"(Burfict) goes and makes the calls. I set everybody up, line everybody up, make the checks and whatnot, and when the nickel comes he stays and James and I run off the field," Maualuga said. "Now I just go out there and play football."

It coincides with what head coach Marvin Lewis calls the best of Maualuga's five preseasons. Guenther says he's in much better shape and looks like he did when he was a rookie. Both he and Lewis vented their feelings last year about Pro Football Focus's ranking that listed Maualuga last overall and in coverage among NFL inside backers.

"Perception is not always reality," said Guenther, who hinted Maualuga may see some snaps in nickel.

"We'll mix it up. I want to try and make the snaps as even as possible," Guenther said. "He's been playing a lot of the base snaps and second- and third-down snaps. I'm trying to spread him out so that he isn't playing 70 snaps a game. I think I've seen an improvement in him. He's good against the run and physical. We have a lot of different guys with different strengths."

The Bengals are hoping they can find one more for Captain Tez, even if he's a safety. He just has to watch how The Captain did it.

"Been here every day and in the gym. For some reason I feel like I've been picking it up quick," Mays said. "I feel good about it. Some stuff you have to learn on the field but I have to get it done."

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