Getting his kicks


Keith Rivers

It used to be that nice guys finished last.

Now they finish fast in front of an adoring crowd of more than 200,000 views on the Web.

After a winter in the gym, Keith Rivers, the Bengals' resident nice guy that Jay Glazer is meaning up, puts his MMA moves to work in the Bengals voluntary on-field workouts that continue this week.

"I liked it," Rivers admits. "It leaves you exhausted and I wanted to back off the weights on the joints and I still ended up putting on eight pounds. ... Yeah, I think there's a chance I'll go back before training camp. ... There were times maybe when you didn't feel like working out, but I never felt that way (with MMA)."

With defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer saying he'll tinker with SAM backer Rey Maualuga at middle linebacker and right end Michael Johnson at SAM backer, Rivers heads into his third spring planted at WILL backer as a model of conscientious consistency.

"One of the nicest guys you'll meet in the league. We're trying to make him more violent," says Glazer, host of Foxsports.com's weekly 1 p.m. Monday video show that peers into the world of martial arts and has segments featuring NFL players.

"As an athlete, he's one of the best around. We're looking to make him meaner. I got under his skin one day in the cage and he threw me down. I'm telling you, we're just scratching the surface with him."

All of which makes Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis smile a bit. He loves Rivers' edge just fine, but he has noticed a difference.

"I think he carries himself with more confidence," Lewis says. "He's the guy we drafted. A very conscientious guy. He wants to be perfect on every play and do exactly what Zim and Fitzy (linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald) ask him to do. Unfortunately, there are so many moving parts; he has to realize you can't be perfect all the time."

Drafted with the ninth overall pick out of USC in 2008, the 6-2, 240-pound Rivers is looking to make more big plays after two years of making a lot of plays with 89 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and two interceptions.

Like that huge fourth-quarter pick in San Diego back on Dec. 20 that nearly gave the Bengals their biggest win of the year.

But the month or so in the gym wasn't anything he mapped out.

"I was working out at 'SC after the season with Brian Cushing and Thomas Williams and Cush said, 'I'm going to go see this guy Jay Glazer at an MMA workout,' so Thomas and I went to check it out," Rivers recalls. "First day we tried, when we left we were exhausted. We said, 'We love this.' "

Glazer and former super middleweight champ Frankie Lyles worked on boxing moves with Rivers. He hooked him up with the best judo fighter in the world, Karo Parisyan, to work on wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu. A Muay Thai expert was there to work on a sport that uses punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes.

"The kick-boxing makes him open his hips and strengthen his legs," Glazer says. "In each workout we want to make them hit the breaking point and then we keep reestablishing that point.  The idea is that if you can get through it, the fourth quarter in a game, no matter the pain or an injury, you'll be able to play through it."

Rivers' video has already appeared but Glazer, doubling as Fox's NFL information man on its Web site and broadcasts, keeps them coming. He is working with the Rams and Falcons as well as collecting individual players. It sounds like Cushing is going to land him Maualuga for workouts before training camp and another 'SC backer, Clay Matthews sounds like he's in the fold. Vikings sack ace Jared Allen is a big proponent.

"They do a good job translating it to what we do on the field," Rivers says. "The single-leg takedown is a lot like tackling and what we do with the hands helps taking on blockers and with pass rush moves. The conditioning is really intense. Think about how long a fight takes on the street? A minute. How long is a boxing round? Three minutes. There were times we would go 10 minutes straight."

The workouts end with preparation for an actual bout without the sparring, but it includes the grueling exercise of running across the gym while carrying and lifting bags, as well as jumping over them, before getting into the cage and cross-training with boxing and wrestling.

"That is pretty exhausting; the bags get pretty heavy," he says. 

But a lot of it is mental. Glazer says the idea is to "break the will of the opponent."

"We're not just slapping hands away," he says. "We're using the forearm as a blade. You're constantly smashing it down. So by the time the fourth quarter comes around, the last thing that offensive lineman wants to do is put his hands on you. You can feel it when someone's will breaks."

Rivers already has that mindset on Game Day, but he thinks the MMA program is going to help his overall approach.

"I think we've all got our inner jerk," Rivers says. "None of us have a problem getting ready before a game. We've all got that switch. But I think it will help with looking at it day-to-day, and putting some of the things in my mind during practice."

Give Glazer a few more workouts before camp and…

"There's nothing wrong," he says, "with the guys you're playing against thinking you're a jerk and just want to get away from you after the game."

A one-line look at the Bengals linebackers by their numbers:

51 - Dan Skuta, 6-2, 251, second season: Emerging as an interesting guy that can play the middle and SAM. Free agent out of Grand Valley played in eight games but still finished fifth in special-teams tackles. Had a big block on Bernard Scott's kick return TD in Pittsburgh.

52 - Abdul Hodge, 6-2, 247, 5: Played in every game last year with 11 special-teams tackles (fourth on the team). Didn't play much from scrimmage. Usually backs up the middle, but can play WILL. Second on team with 15 tackles in the preseason.

53 - Rashad Jeanty, 6-2, 247, 5: Backup SAM led all special-teamers with 14 tackles. Physical, tough, continually plays hurt. Past winner of Ed Block Courage Award. Broke his fibula on the opening kickoff of the playoff game. Had surgery and won't be back until training camp

54 - Vincent Rey, 6-2, 240, R:Free agent out of Duke. Had a huge workout at pro day. Look for the Bengals to see what he does at WILL. Before moving to middle backer to start his senior season, he played in all 36 games with 23 starts, all but one at weakside. Returned to Duke as leading tackler and second-leading active tackler in ACC.

55 - Keith Rivers, 6-2, 240, 3: Since being the ninth overall pick in 2008, has been the starter at WILL and last year had some productive games in big moments: Dozen tackles vs. Pittsburgh, nine tackles in Baltimore and fourth-quarter pick and sack in San Diego. Looking to jack up career totals of two picks and a sack in 20 games.

56 - Roddrick Muckelroy, 6-2, 246, R: Fourth-round pick out of Texas. Started three years in the middle and at WILL and the Bengals think he can play SAM here. All-Big 12 as a junior and senior with 256 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and six pass breakups for his career. Should be able to get calls with degree in Corporate Communications.

57 - Dhani Jones, 6-1, 240, 11: One of the world's best known travelers returns to home where he has been the starter since mid-'07. Mike Zimmer's eyes and ears. As he heads into the last year of his contract, he'll get spelled at times by SAM backer Rey Maualuga this spring. Played both outside spots before coming to Cincy. Like fine wine he had one of his most productive seasons last year at age 31 with 142 tackles.

58 - Rey Maualuga, 6-2, 255, 2: Started 15 games at SAM as rookie before breaking his fibula vs. Kansas City in the next-to-last game of the year. Flashed big-time promise with 80 tackles and two forced fumbles. After January DUI says he had life-changing stint in rehab. Heir apparent to Jones, he'll work some in the middle in the spring.

59 - Brandon Johnson, 6-5, 243, 5: Coming off a huge season in which he was probably the club's best backer even though he primarily worked out of the WILL in third-down packages. But he also led the Bengals in tackles twice while racking up a versatile line of 67 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three passes defensed, and one fumble recovery. The coaches like him better at WILL, but he started at SAM in a pinch in the playoff game. Excellent in pass coverage, a Zimmer must this season vs. big-time passers.

93 - Michael Johnson, 6-7, 260, 2: One of Zimmer's projects. Active right end as a rookie in nickel with three sacks and five passes defensed, so he'll see some time at SAM this spring to take advantage of his versatility. His athleticism and size from two spots would make things difficult in pass protection for an offense.

The Bengals will probably end up counting Johnson on the roster at the final cutdown as a defensive lineman. But does that mean they'll only keep six linebackers instead of seven and he'll be the swing guy? They first have to find out if he can play SAM.

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