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Defense Embraces Another 'Return Of Tez' 

Even the tackling dummy knew Wednesday that No. 55 is playing Sunday.
Even the tackling dummy knew Wednesday that No. 55 is playing Sunday.

On Monday Vontaze Burfict gave Marvin Lewis what Lewis says Burfict will give his team Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against Miami in the Paul Brown Stadium Re-Opener after spending three of the first four games on the road.

A lift.

"When he came up from behind and picked me up off the floor on Monday, I knew it could only be one person," said Lewis Wednesday before Burfict's first practice of the season. "I guess it's time to wrestle with the bear again."

Lewis made news Wednesday when he gave running back Joe Mixon's Sunday status forecast of "a nice, bright sunny day," but the sun also rose with Burfict. Maybe it's because Lewis made his chops in the league as a linebacker guru. Or maybe it's because of Burfict's Madden game-quick instincts that are a coach's dream. Or maybe it's because he stretches to the limit all of Lewis' coaching skills as such a talented, volatile and passionate player.

Whatever it is, they've got a close relationship as Burfict comes off his third straight NFL suspension to start a season.

"My job," Lewis said, "gets more fun."

Burfict, who turned 28 last week, is arriving just in the nick of time as their best defensive player suits up for a unit rated 29th in the league, 28th against the pass and dead last in third-down conversions at a whopping 57.4 percent. Burfict made his chops in the league on third down and then later on every down. It is those seemingly supernatural instincts are extremely helpful on third down.

"Definitely. We need help all over the field on third down," said middle linebacker Preston Brown, asked if Burfict helps them in nickel. "It seems like guys are wide open, so we have to find ways to tighten up the coverage and make sure we give those guys up front time to rush."

The Bengals' third-down percentage has been negligible in the last 36 games Burfict has played (.408) and the last 32 he's missed (.402) over the past five seasons. But no one in that room doubts he makes them a better defense.

"Instincts (are) one thing, but just to have him on the field, I definitely feel like that game we lost we wouldn't have lost if we had him," said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. "He just brings something different. He's a veteran guy. He's a guy that's known out there on the field. And guys have to worry about him. I definitely feel that with the instincts he brings to the game, he's always one step ahead."

Burfict was nice enough about it and told the media he wouldn't talk until Friday. But he had plenty of guys talking for him Wednesday about what he brings to Sunday's AFC bash. Bring Your Own Intangible.

"Just the awareness of the game. You know, being in the game, understanding the game," said left end Carlos Dunlap. "His knack for the football, he studies a lot of tape. I feel like he's going to fill right in and understand what we're doing and he's going to bring his edge to the game, being Vontaze, that Pro Bowl player, he's going to add that into there."

Burfict hasn't been to the Pro Bowl or played a full season since 2013. But since then he's earned the respect of his mates and a franchise that has given him two big multi-year deals. Two of the suspensions stem from violations of the player safety policy and this one was for violating the league's PED policy. Everyone is wondering how he's going to get treated in this season of virtual officiating intolerance when it comes to roughing the quarterback and everyone else.

But his teammates are confident he'll adjust.

"Everybody knows he's an emotional player and I feel like he's worked tremendously hard this offseason to try to control the things that happen on the field and the outcome of them," said Kirkpatrick, who came in with Burfict in 2012. "He's one of the leaders on this team and we welcome him back. We're happy to have him back."

He's not the only one that thinks Burfict has tamed his rambunctious play. Dunlap is just one of three starters (tackle Geno Atkins and right end Michael Johnson) that was here before Burfict. He thinks he's been watching him change.

"He's going to play up until the whistle and he's going to play with that edge," Dunlap said. "But early on it was taking him the wrong way, but I feel like he's got that under control as of the last couple of years and he's playing for the betterment of the football team. Now he looks like he's in the best shape and he's got a pep in his step."

Burfict's conditioning has always been a point of contention and debate. He tends to balloon if he's not with the club. But A) he looked pretty svelte Wednesday, as svelte as an old-school 260-pound linebacker can look and B) he's always been good and ready when he comes back to start his seasons:

_In 2015 he came of the physically unable to perform list (PUP) in Pittsburgh and the plan to spot him got blown up on the first play when middle linebacker Rey Maualuga went down. After a couple of days of practice, he played virtually half the snaps (36) in the Bengals' 16-10 victory.

_In 2016 he came back on a Thursday night against these Dolphins and had just one of those throw-away-short-week practices and played 75 percent of the snaps in a 22-7 victory.

_In 2017 he rung up 52 snaps for 80 percent of the load in Cleveland during a 31-7 victory.

So he'll play even though Lewis calls it, "We'll see." And they haven't given up more than a touchdown when he comes back.

The big question seems to be if SAM backer Nick Vigil, who has taken virtually every snap, keeps the helmet headset. New DC Teryl Austin has yet to call a game with Burfict. Before Paul Guenther became the DC in 2014, he was Burfict's position coach.

"When (Guenther) became the defensive coordinator, he became an extension of Paul out on the field. He doesn't have that relationship right now with Teryl so he has to develop that," Lewis said. "I think Preston and Hardy (Nickerson) do have that relationship, because Teryl has been working with them for six or seven weeks. That's the unique thing that's come about in the NFL over the last few years, with the adoption of the communication stuff for the defense."

But no one doubts Burfict makes his presence felt Sunday.

"We just don't want him to get hurt. He just needs to come in, take his time," Kirkpatrick said. "It's going to be totally different from just training. You're going to burn out faster. So we don't want him to hurt himself. I feel like that's what's most important. But we know he's going to want to play. We know there's going to be a time we're going to have to push him off the field. But that's just the competitiveness in him and that's what we need."