Bengals middle linebacker Logan Wilson, whose fierce and rugged plain-speaking versatility made him so popular in Wyoming that they call him "The Governor," puts his growing portfolio on the national stage in Sunday night's chess match when they head to Baltimore to face one of the AFC's kingmakers in Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Wilson's flexibility is a microcosm of how defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has built the Bengals 3-4 hybrid (call it "The Staten Island Stew" in honor of Anarumo's hometown) so it can defend Jackson's dizzying athleticism that defines NFL offense on the open prairie of the 2020s.
He's got a physical cornerback like Mike Hilton that can play like a safety. He's got an edge like Sam Hubbard athletic enough to both rush guys like Jackson and Patrick Mahomes and then spy them on the next snap.
And then there is the 6-2, 245-pound Wilson, who in a span of four days did this: In New York he ranged to the top of a zone to intercept Jets quarterback Joe Flacco's steep seam ball and then against the Dolphins he fought off a block to penetrate on third-and-one for a loss in the running game.
The Staten Island Stew. One of the main ingredients is Wilson and his seven career interceptions that lead all linebackers in the 2020s.
"It all starts," Hilton says, "with being able to run. First thing you've got to do in this league (on defense) is run."
Wilson's growth is an itinerary of interchangeability, the perfect fit falling from the Big Sky for the city slicker Anarumo's playbook. The kid has always been good at everything he tried.
Trevor Wilson, a two-time NAIA wrestling All-American, was stunned one day to see his two-year-old in diapers doing sit-ups not knowing what they were. He put his son on the mat in middle school as he requested and watched him excel. Then he thought Logan was going to be a kicker and even took him to a few camps in pursuit of a college scholarship until Logan blew it up his last two years in Casper and went to the University of Wyoming as a safety.
It was Scottie Hazelton, Wyoming's new defensive coordinator off a year stint in the NFL, who moved him to MIKE linebacker all those years ago in Laramie. During the introductory lunch he broke the news to him, Hazelton swore Wilson was thinking, 'Who is this guy?" and Hazelton had to burrow through his humility to convince him that he was good enough to play in the NFL.
James Bettcher, who coaches him now,
and watches him stay after practice working on sleds and catching balls like his Pro Bowler in San Francisco Fred Warner, says he's more than good in the league.
"That's what he's working himself to be. He is and he can be and he's going to be elite," says Bettcher, the Bengals linebackers coach and two-time NFL defensive coordinator who has also watched Patrick Peterson work his ladder drills before practice and Tyrann Mathieu catch balls from jugs after practice.
"They're obsessive compulsive about being different. That's why they end up being those players. The thing I love about Logan is he has no interest in that kind of talk. He's playing at a high level, but all he cares about is getting better. That's a characteristic of elite."
Solomon Wilcots, the former Bengals safety who wakes up the NFL on Sirius Radio on his show "The Opening Drive," says Wilson is trending in a Pro Bowl direction.
"I love Logan Wilson. He keeps making plays like that, I'll vote for him for the Pro Bowl," Wilcots says. "A lot of these guys can play the pass, but he can do both.
"He understands route patterns. When you have the tight end go up the seam, he knows he's pulling up the linebacker so they can put somebody in and underneath. He sees a route, he already knows the pattern. He can anticipate filling passing lanes, unlike most linebackers. When he told me he had been a defensive back, I told him, now I know why he was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers. He sees the game from the back to the front. When you can do that, that's where Logan Wilson sets himself apart from a lot of the linebackers who never played in the secondary."
Wilcots credits Anarumo with crafting the blueprint for at least limiting Jackson last year in a 41-17 Bengals win. He still conjured up 257 yards passing and 88 yards rushing, but he was less than 50 percent throwing (15-for-31) and the explosives were few and far between.
From what Wilcots could see, they had a controlled rush to keep Jackson in the pocket and weren't overly aggressive and they sent "a spy,' at him late in the play. Usually it was Hubbard, another former safety who was discovered playing lacrosse.
The Staten Island Stew is stirred by versatility against the Jackson-Mahomes-Josh Allen-pass-run dilemmas.
"I mean certainly one of the reasons," Anarumo says of the skill-sets he felt he needed to revive his first defense, ranked No. 29 in 2019, last against the rush. "I think the more athletic you are, the better you'll be at all positions."
And few are more athletic than Wilson.
"It's hard to find three-down MIKES. They don't exist. It's like trying to find a fullback," Anarumo says. "It's just not around and when you find one... he had the right progression. He played safety in high school. Goes and plays outside backer. So, he's an athlete that just grew into what he is now. And, oh by the way, you saw the third down stop (against Miami) where he just stepped up and smacked the running back a yard behind the line of scrimmage. Those guys are rare to find and we're fortunate to have him."
Bettcher says watch him play in the box and you'll know why he's able to make plays. He keeps his body square. He's patient. His feet are tight and don't flail. No wasted movement.
For Hazelton, now the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, he thought it was a no brainer to make him a MIKE and it just wasn't about athleticism.
"You could see a guy who could run and move," Hazelton says. "And he had the command of people around him. He could say a few words and they would do what they said.
"You know how some guys have the kind of success he had, they start doing it their way and stop listening? He never did. He's one of the humblest people I ever met."
Trevor Wilson, an official in the Wyoming High School Activities Association, runs the state tournaments for wrestling and basketball. This year in the wake of the Super Bowl run, The Governor accompanied him. The intangibles were on full display.
"He just wanted to hang out with me in the gym and it was cool to see not only the kids but the adults come up and ask him for an autograph," Trevor Wilson says. "It was pretty awesome to see. He's very good about it. He knows he's just giving back.
"It's a low-population state (barely half-a-million) and there's just one state university. He's had a lot of support."
While he played 52 games in five years, he became massively popular in the state and it soared even more when the Bengals took him with the first pick in the third round and became Wyoming's highest drafted defensive player in 31 years.
Go to Casper's Wikipedia page and he's listed at the very top of the "Notable People," list, ahead of former vice president Dick Cheney, U.S. Sen., John Barrasso and congresswoman Liz Cheney. The Governor has never been to the mansion in Cheyenne, but Gov. Mark Gordon showed up at the college one day a few years ago and got his picture with Wilson, no doubt helping him in the polls.
"He'd be a very popular choice," Trevor Wilson said of a run at the real thing. "I don't think he has any interest in that."
The Governor, it seems, is more interested in an AFC North run-off with an MVP.