The Bengals have been decimated enough at linebacker that you don't have to be Paul Brown or Bill Belichick or Ted Lasso to figure that NFL sophomore Markus Bailey could very well get his first NFL start in the biggest game around these parts in six years Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when the Ravens' feared run game plows into Paul Brown Stadium to play for first place in the AFC North.
It's a seminal moment for the Bengals run defense that the Ravens chased out of PBS in last year's finale with 404 yards. This year the Bengals have allowed the fifth fewest rushing yards in the league and linebackers coach Al Golden's resourceful room is a reason why.
You don't have to tell Bailey about injuries or big games. His five-year career at Purdue was book-ended by ACL tears and in between he led the Boilermakers to a stunning win over the second-ranked Buckeyes of his own Ohio state with 15 tackles.
And that clinching 41-yard pick-six in the fourth quarter assured the Columbus, Ohio product of a special place in Hoosiers annals.
"Don't make it bigger than it is," said Bailey this week as he finished his post-practice grind of film work and training room that usually makes him one of the last to leave the place.
"Focus on each play. Just do your job. Play team football, fly around and everything tends to work out."
Bailey flies around so much and is so willing to crash into plays and bodies that he has earned the nickname of "The Waterboy," a term of endearment and respect for his all-out play. Golden had a hand in drafting him in last year's seventh round out of West Lafayette and he's been watching those same attractive traits develop.
"Markus is an instinctive player," Golden says. "He's got the quick trigger. He sees the play, understands it and he knows when to trigger."
That's what Bailey did last Sunday in Mile High on one of the early third downs when he teamed with linebacker Germaine Pratt for their first NFL sack. Coming out of the Double A Gap blitz up the middle, Pratt ran over running back Javante Williams while Bailey used his speed to get through untouched and they got Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater so quickly that Bridgewater barely transferred the snap.
"My second year in the system, I'm starting to feel more confident in it," Bailey said as he talked about the biggest lessons he's had to learn in the league. "The offense and quarterbacks are so talented overall. There's a lot more match concepts in coverage than what I played in college. A lot more true zone from a conceptual standpoint and that's just something you have to get used to and I'm more comfortable with it now."
That was before Joe Bachie went down with his own ACL tear making a hit on Bridgewater. That took Bailey out of his third-role role and made him an every-down player and he responded with career-high five tackles in a career-most 34 snaps on a very big day the defense gave no red-zone points.
"Joe was playing well. It's unfortunate that you get a chance like this through injury," said Bailey, who probably would have got the chance before Bachie if he didn't hurt his neck on an early special teams play against the Chargers that knocked him out the next week against the 49ers.
"I've dealt with injuries myself and it's inherent in football. We've had them this year in a lot of positions and we've had the next man up mentality."
It's been a process, as they like to say. After drafting Bailey with the 215th pick (after T.J. Houshmandzadeh and before Auden Tate), they brought Bailey's knee along slowly and he played most of his rookie 44 snaps against the Ravens in last year's finale he was in on a dozen snaps.
He played another career-high 16 plays in Baltimore this year, another rout but the other way. He also played 24 snaps as the Bengals put away the Steelers last month, but last Sunday's work was done in the crucible of a playoff-type game he also played 18 snaps on special teams.
So he's not on new ground against the Ravens run game and quarterback Lamar Jackson's lethal zone read.
"The Ravens are unique the way they do it. It's a little bit different than just the zone read," Bailey said. "They make it look like the zone read, but it's not. There's a lot of other schemes like gap schemes and zone runs.
"The biggest thing is whoever they have at quarterback, they're a dual threat … Everyone has to know where their fit is. When you have a team that uses a lot of jet motions, a lot of different split zone looks, everyone has to have a specific spot in order to have every part of the option covered. There is a certain amount of people on the quarterback, certain amount of people playing the dive, certain amount of people in the gap and you have to be physical and get off blocks."
If it sounds like Bailey knows what he's talking about, he does. He was a semifinalist for the nation's top football scholar athlete award in that injury shortened senior season at Purdue.
And if Pratt is becoming a master of leadership with the green dot helmet in Wilson's absence, Bailey has a master's in leadership that he received along with an undergrad degree in sports science.
What defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said the day they drafted has transferred to an NFL facility when it comes to intangibles:
"He's a football junkie. He's one of those guys that's a gym rat. He's always in there. I know those coaches well there (at Purdue), and they've got to kick the kid out of the building."
When he was going to Hilliard Davidson High School, a 40-yard dash from Ohio State, he was in the middle of Bengals fans and Browns fans. Maybe a tad more Cincinnati fans, but he was neither.
"I really wasn't a fan of anybody growing up," Bailey said. "If anything, I was fan of Seattle because of their defense."
It turns out on Sunday he'll have with him a stadium full of fans of both the Bengals and their defense.