If Vontaze Burfict is the heart and soul of the Bengals defense, then the defense got a transplant Thursday when their Pro Bowl WILL linebacker returned to the field for the first time in a year to rave reviews from coaches and teammates.
"You ever hear Vontaze talk? You ever see him play?" said quarterback Andy Dalton when asked if Burfict was talking his usual steady stream on the practice field. "You notice he's back out there, which is a good thing. That's the way he plays. That's all part of it. He needs to get back to playing football again, but I don't expect a big drop-off from where he was."
Vincent Rey, the man who has replaced Burfict since he went down with a knee injury last Oct. 26, concurred.
"He looked like himself to me," Rey said. "He was playing hard, he was playing physical, and he was playing fast."
As a veteran observer Rey was asked if he thought Burfict would play this Sunday in Pittsburgh (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) after watching him work Thursday in all phases for the first time in the wake of January's micro fracture surgery.
"I think he will,' Rey said. "I'm still ready to play how many snaps they need me. I'm hoping he plays so we can all play some snaps. At the end of the day it's getting to 7-0. That's the main goal."
If anything, Burfict has helped inject even more life into his teammates in a week already enveloped with the Steelers.
"He's a guy that plays at a high level," Rey said. "That's probably his best attribute. He loves the game. He loves competing out there. When he's out there we all raise our play because we see him competing and we want to get in on the action and I'm excited to see him out there vs. Pittsburgh."
So there it is. At the moment, Burfict looks to be 50-50 for the Steelers because no one quite knows what's going to happen. First, they have to see how the knee responds Friday morning. Then they can go from there.
There is absolutely no intrigue with the other injured star player in this game. According to reports out of Pittsburgh, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks like he's having no problems with his sprained knee after practicing full for the second straight day.
Meanwhile, everyone is encouraged about Burfict, but he was also careful to say he's not 100 percent. And defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is careful to say he won't play if he's not 100 percent. But he also said they'd see how the week goes and he raved about how he moved: "It looks like he never missed any time."
"If we felt he wasn't 100 percent ready from a physical standpoint we wouldn't (play him)," Guenther said. "If we felt like he was ready at the end of the week here, and all systems were go, then we'd do it. We have to wait and see how it goes through the course of the week.
"If we he's ready to do it and he feels like he can do it, then we could use him. We got to make sure we make a good decision on him. We're not hurrying."
For his part Burfict said he felt so good he didn't want to leave the field when practice ended with the usual "Bring it up."
He did say he's "not quite 100 percent." Asked if he'd play if not 100 percent, Burfict said, "Of course, if I have to. If it's the Super Bowl, I'm playing.
"It's been hard, long, stressful, but I'm here now thanks to God almost healthy and hopefully I can get out there and play on Sunday one of these days.
Sunday isn't the Super Bowl, but it's a big one. The Bengals are trying to put the Steelers four games back in the loss column with nine to play and become the first Cincinnati team to ever start a season 7-0.
"Of course I would want to go. I'm a football player. I'm competitive. That's up to Marvin (Lewis). My mind is to play, but like I said that's up to Marvin,' said Burfict, also asked about the confidence he has in the knee.
"I would have never been out there practicing if I wasn't confident. The NFL is a physical game. I wouldn't want to go out there with a bad knee and having to do something else different to it. I feel confident in it and I'm able to break and accelerate and break down . . . No steps back. I felt like I gained some step."
See? It sounds like maybe. Or might. 50-50.
Burfict also admitted that he and rehab trainer Nick Cosgray have been down a hard road where he always didn't see the end.
"I always stayed praying," Burfict said. "There were some hard days when I didn't feel like doing rehab, but Marvin made sure he calls me and made sure I get into the stadium. There were some hard days, but I'm here now and looking forward to playing a game. Teammates . . . kept pushing me. They knew when I was out of it. One day when I didn't feel like doing rehab and they'll just push me to do it. I've been pushed by teammates, coaches, Mr. (Mike) Brown and I thank them for it."
Burfict is still on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and the Bengals now have three weeks from Thursday to decide if they're going to activate him. They have a roster exemption until they make that decision, but it won't take three weeks.
The question of the day now seems to be if he'll be activated in time for either Pittsburgh, Cleveland a week from Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium, or for Houston Nov. 16 game at PBS on Monday Night Football. When they do activate him they'll have to cut a player, but with Burfict's status so tentative it won't be a linebacker.
Certainly Guenther's enthusiasm can't be quelled.
"He looked real good. His movement skills were excellent. It looks like he's never missed any time," Guenther said. "He obviously understands the defense. He's just got to get back into football shape. He moved around real good. We're real encouraged with what we saw.
"As soon as we feel he's good enough to go out there. If we feel like he's ready to play, then he'll be able to go right away. We just have to go through the rest of the week and find out."
The other part of the equation is they have a backer corps running on fumes. Rookie WILL backer P.J. Dawson has played only nine snaps and Chris Carter has played just 61 as mainly pass rusher.
And with outside backers A.J. Hawk (28 percent of the snaps against mostly the run) and Emmanuel Lamur (44 percent against mostly the pass) playing niche roles, Rey, with 95 percent, and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga with 70 percent, are taking the bulk of the reps.
"It's a good problem to have when you've got guys who can step in and perform at a high level," Guenther said. "When you've got a guy like that who step into the mix, it's like getting a new player."
The new player did some familiar things Thursday.
"He was making plays out there. He was getting to the ball. Effort plays. Pass breakups," Rey said. "And practice is very competitive, so when he's making plays I want to make plays. Everybody does."
Rey just looks at the lift Maualuga gave them when he returned after missing four straight games with a hamstring problem last season.
"I remember when Rey came back in New Orleans and we won three straight games on the road, which is very tough," Vincent Rey said. "I think it will be similar with Tez coming back. Raising our level of play as a linebacker group and as a defense."
The only question now seems to be not if, but when.
Cincinnati Bengals host practice at Paul Brown Stadium 10/29/2015.