Letting Rey be Rey


And here Rey Maualuga had been worried all weekend.

So worried that while he watched his baby daughter he also watched the draft "glued" to the TV, even down to the third round. He and defensive tackle Domata Peko always kid each other. "Hey, they're going to draft a middle linebacker. Hey, they're going to draft a D-tackle."

But this was serious.

"I have fans here in Cincinnati. And I have the ones that don't like me. That didn't think I had a good season and want me to get out of here," Maualuga said before his Monday workout. "We had two first-round picks and you hear these things going around. Are they going to trade up to get this Cincinnati native or are they going to pick (Dont'a) Hightower? I don't know."

Not only did the Bengals not trade up to get St. Xavier High School's Luke Kuechly and not only did they pass on Hightower twice, but they didn't take a linebacker anywhere in the six rounds and 10 picks. And on Monday, Maualuga's new position coach reminded everyone just how important he is at middle linebacker.

"He should be," said Paul Guenther, "the centerpiece of our defense."

It has been a big week and it is a big year for Maualuga, the 2009 second-rounder who went from everyone's Linebacker of the Year at USC to feeling his way around the NFL.

Now in his fourth season and contract year, Maualuga has a repaired ankle from surgery and a renewed agenda from Guenther as he goes into his second season at his natural spot in the middle.

"If you put on the tape at 'SC, we didn't draft him because he was a defensive coordinator," Guenther said. "We drafted him because he's a good middle linebacker. So let the guy do what he does best. Run to the ball and don't worry so much."

Maualuga is still going to call the defenses and the checks and run the huddle. The coaches just want him not to worry about all the things that can happen on a play.

"Just focus on what you have to do and nothing else," is how Guenther is putting it and Maualuga is listening.

"I'm comfortable with it," Maualuga said. "We'll give you the play. Line up and tackle the guy with the ball. That way you don't have to think too much."

Lately, Maualuga has been thinking about too much. There was not only the draft, but also an odd incident at a downtown Cincinnati bar a few months ago. Maualuga was charged with assault by an employee but last Thursday it was dismissed and instead of worrying about missing games he can think about standing ground on his healthy ankle.

"Everything is done getting ready for OTAs. It's so much better to come in here not worried about what's going on outside this locker room," he said. "Everybody is going to look at the situation like, 'OK, Rey got in trouble his rookie year and what not.' This was a situation that got blown out of proportion because of who I am."

Now he can worry about May 22, the first day of onfield practice. He says he'll be out there and he'll be healthy like he was when he was playing some really good ball in last season's first five games. After serving his two-year apprenticeship to middle backer Dhani Jones while playing SAM backer for the first time in his life, it all seemed to be coming together at the spot he has always played and loved.

Until Oct. 13. Until 72 hours before the Colts game and Maualuga severely sprained his ankle when he came down from leaping for a pass in practice. He would miss the next three games and wasn't the same when he got back.

"I started out pretty good and then being off four weeks, including the bye, I don't want to make excuses, but it made me scared," Maualuga said. "Are these guys going to try and chop block me? Are they going to try and take my legs out? I was in a fetal position so they don't get to my ankles. It's like I was playing scared."

The Bengals run dense that led the league in yards per carry while he was healthy, faltered down the stretch by allowing 140 yards per in the last six games.

"At times I felt like I didn't want to re-hurt myself, so I wasn't playing to my capability. Just rethinking and overthinking a situation while I'm playing," he said. "It made me not play 100 percent. But at the same time did I not give the person behind me a chance to play knowing that I am risking my assignments on the field, not making plays. Whereas I could be getting healthy and letting the next person play, (Dan) Skuta, who is healthy ... we'll never know."

Now that he feels better about his ankle following January surgery, Maualuga knows what he's got to do with it.

"Tackling. Everyone talks about over-pursuit and making tackles," he said. "First and foremost I'm here to play Mike, to make every single play I can. To wrap up and tackle. To get off the field. I feel like sometimes I did that. And other times I ran by the ball carrier. Or just not being at the right place at the right time. I feel more comfortable this year having a year under my belt. It wasn't the type of year I wanted, but it's something I can improve on."

The season doesn't get any bigger for an individual. Coming off an injury and heading into a contract year in the second season at your No. 1 position.

"I like it here. It's one of the things these guys took a gamble by taking me. Being in trouble and what not, all the other teams around the league are thankful they didn't take him," Maualuga said. "To be able to have that sense of comfort that these guys put all their faith in me is a team I don't want to leave. It's a team I want to play for until my days of playing football are over. I don't know, being my last year I'm just going to try to give it all I've got."

He's getting the message that the feeling is mutual if he can have a breakout year.

"I know they have faith in me," Maualuga said. "You wonder if you are still on the team you did something right. For them not to draft a linebacker makes you feel like you're not secured, but they have somewhat faith in you or the depth that we'll have another good run for another year and see what we do in the next draft."

The Bengals did make a huge rookie free-agent signing at Maualuga's spot when after the draft they added Arizona State middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict. But even though Burfict was once touted as a first-round pick and fell out of the draft for a variety of reasons, a college free agent is a longshot to make any NFL roster. The numbers? He had 16 personal fouls in his last 26 games, the slowest 40-yard dash time of any backer at the NFL Scouting Combine, and, according to reports, one failed marijuana test at the combine.

Maualuga has never met Burfict, but somehow got to be his friend on Facebook and he's ready to help.

"The whole talk on him not playing with discipline and getting a bunch of unsportsmanlike flags, all that can be worked on," Maualuga said. "He'll come in and he'll contribute well. Can't wait for him to get here and see how we develop as linebackers together.

"(I'll) just wait until he gets in and help him out anyway that I can as far as the playbook, what he needs to prepare himself for as far as OTAs, how to get ready. Most people don't get coached on what to prepare for on the next level. Having guys like us to be here and to be sure that they wake up and have that mindset and that focus to come here, be coachable, go out on the field and let your work speak for itself."

Not bad advice for the starting middle backer, either.

"Now that you get your opportunity to have your one last year to showcase what you have and to show them you're all about business and you're all about this franchise," he said. "That you're going to do everything to help win games and just stay out of the public's eye. Then only for positive things."

And make it even simpler than that.

"'We're not going to tell you a whole bunch to do. We want you to go out there and play,'" Maualuga said of Guenther's marching orders. "There's only so much you can tell a person. Then you just have to let them play."

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