Hawk perched on familiar ground in Bengals defense

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Vincent Rey enjoyed working with newcomer A.J. Hawk in the linebacker corps.

This is why the Bengals signed veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk in free agency and why they drafted Texas Christian linebacker P.J. Dawson in the third round and why they've been close-mouthed about Pro Bowl WILL backer Vontaze Burfict.

They simply don't know when he'll be ready to play in the wake of January's micro fracture knee surgery. His doctor said then they were shooting to make it back by July, but after Tuesday's first practice of the spring voluntary season head coach Marvin Lewis said Burfict is going to rehab all summer long.

How that rehab goes is going to answer the question if he'll be for training camp July 31. If not, the Bengals will then be faced with a decision. If he practices just once during camp, he's not eligible to start the season on PUP and if he starts the regular season on PUP he'll miss the first six weeks of the regular season.

All Lewis would say Tuesday is what we knew. He's trying to beat the odds to be back by July and he's a long way away. On Tuesday he worked on the rehab field and he looked OK running through the rope ladders on the ground, but it's early in the process.

Enter Hawk, the 10-year veteran from Centerville, Ohio, Ohio State, and Green Bay. He began the day lining up in Burfict's spot, and also played some SAM (which in this defense is basically the same thing), looking quite comfy in a 4-3 after playing virtually his entire career in a 3-4.

"We had some games at Green Bay we were never in the 3-4. You're in nickel packages, which is like a 4-3, a 4-2 or whatever. Football is football, I think, when it comes down to it," Hawk said after practice. "Something that is different is if you're an outside backer in a 3-4 you're a D-end basically that has to drop. So the guy who is transitioning from a 4-3 D-end to a 3-4 outside backer, yeah that's a tough transition. But the inside spots, they're not exactly the same but it's still football. It's not hand down, hand up and that whole thing."

Vincent Rey, who lined up at middle linebacker, had a huge smile after working with Hawk for the first time. Rey worked the middle Tuesday because Rey Maualuga was on the rehab field for what was believed to be a minor tweak and is expected to return Wednesday.

But it gave defensive coordinator Paul Guenther a chance to unveil his method of rotating everyone. After a devastating spate of injuries levelled his depth chart last season, Guenther made up his mind his reserves won't be so inexperienced this season.

"One thing I learned last year is you have to make sure the backup guys are ready to go so there's going to be some guys working in with the first group, second group," Guenther said. "We really don't have groups right now. We have 11 guys out there. "

And one of them is Hawk playing in place of Burfict.

"It was good to be out there with him, just from communication," Rey said. "He was talking all the time pre-snap. It was good because I felt comfortable. I'm saying, 'This guy knows what the heck is going on.' It was cool to hear.  Little stuff like, 'Vinny, watch for this.'  It's good because you're more relaxed in your stance. Tez, Rey, they're such good communicators. That's what makes them good. He's just like them."

Dawson, the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year, was also getting time on the outside with the backups and they have high hopes for him. But Hawk gives them a starting caliber guy right away if Burfict can't start the season.

"He's real smart. Veteran guy, played in a lot of different defenses," Guenther said. "So he's picked up our defense really good. He's playing all the spots. For a guy like that with his experience, it's good to have a guy who's been through it a lot to be through those things. 

"Right now we have him in one spot, but all our guys got to know because whoever is going next into the game it's always the next best guy. He's done a great job of picking up everything it's natural to him. He's played in the 4-3 before so it's not like its alien."

 Hawk had low grades last year in Green Bay, but he was hobbled by bone spurs and feels like he can contribute more after having off-season surgery. On Tuesday he looked quick enough to drop into coverage, take away a passing lane to wide receiver A.J. Green, and force quarterback Andy Dalton to throw it away.

"Learn each position like they're Xs on the board, not like it's a MIKE, SAM, WILL linebacker," Hawk said. "You've just got to know what everybody is doing basically so you can plug guys in wherever that may be."

A lifelong Bengals fan growing up in Centerville, there couldn't be a better fit. Not for what the Bengals need with the Burfict question hanging over them and not for what Hawk needs in most likely his last stop with a two-year deal at age 31.

"I feel very comfortable. I've said it before; it's a great locker room. Guys are really competitive, really encouraging. A lot of camaraderie here," Hawk said. "I noticed that from day one. I felt comfortable since I got here. Obviously I'm coming in as the old guy, which I happily welcome. I like that. I don't want to be the 22-year-old anymore. I don't claim to be the smart, wise old vet coming in here. I'm asking these guys questions just like a rookie. I'm learning the defense like these rookies are learning it. It's my first time seeing it, too, when I looked at it a month ago. It feels good, honestly. It's been fun. Going into my 10th year and learning a new scheme is different, sure, but I welcome the challenge. It's been good."

And there it is not just the defense that seems familiar.

"It's something my wife jokes about. I'm from Ohio so I have a connection here with the people in Ohio," Hawk said. "I like how people go about their way, how they work here. I think everyone is always looking for some kind of motivation. I've always been a guy who has motivated myself. I love the game. I love playing football but there's a big difference. Everything is different. Not just the scheme but the schedule, how we run things, how practice is structured. It's fun to see there are multiple different ways to run a team and do things. I love the guys at Green Bay. They do things first class and I've seen nothing but the same here."

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