BENGALS MLB REY MAUALUGA AND WLB VONTAZE BURFICT VS. CHIEFS RB JAMAAL CHARLES
While the coaches believe a trimmer Maualuga has played his best since dropping 20 pounds in the last 50 days to 245 pounds, Burfict has put more meat on his reputation as a fierce competitor whose take-no-prisoners-toughness is contagious and is making him one of the defensive leaders at the tender age of 22.
"I've got veteran players on defense coming up and telling me he doesn't play like a rookie," says linebackers coach Paul Guenther.
Against the Giants last Sunday there were various points Burfict looked like he wasn't going to get back up. But he'd invariably slap his helmet, limp into a stance, and make the next tackle. A solo tackle. At the end it was an elbow that got him and he still didn't come off until fellow free agent rookie Emmanuel Lamur ran into the huddle at the command of head coach Marvin Lewis.
Burfict missed about five snaps when he went into the locker room for an X-ray, but when it was negative he went back into the game wearing a pad.
"I'd rather get carried off the field," Burfict says.
The tenacious, physical mindset is starting to get noticed.
"He's throwing his body around. I think he knows the story about Wally Pipp," Lewis says of the legendary Yankees first baseman that lost his job to a headache and Lou Gehrig's streak. "His teammates see that about him. There's no more passionate guy on this football team than Vontaze. And he's doing it like a veteran."
One of those veterans, cornerback Adam Jones, sees something familiar.
"He reminds when I was young; he just loves playing football," Jones says. "He plays with that edge. Like his motor doesn't stop. He's just a beast. Vontaze is just a freak of an athlete."
While Guenther says Burfict plays at a different speed than everyone, he says Maualuga is playing at a much faster pace now that he's realized he can't play in space at 265 pounds.
"That's 90 percent of why he wasn't doing what we wanted," Guenther says of the first six games. "Fatigue. He was fatigued. You could see it in his face."
After the pair led the assault on holding the Giants receivers to nothing across the middle of the field, Maualuga and Burfict have to come up big in the running game this Sunday in Kansas City (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12). It's pretty much all the Chiefs have as they ride the brilliance of running back Jamaal Charles. The elusive Charles has darted and spun to 4.7 yards per carry and is the ninth-ranked runner in the NFL.
While the Giants spread the Bengals out in their nickel packages last Sunday, the Chiefs are expected to go tight and pound the ball against the Bengals base defense.
"First you have to identify the play and then the blocking scheme," Guenther says of the Chiefs zone blocking that has sprung Kansas City's fourth-ranked running game in the NFL. "You have to get your hands out, separating off blocks. Sometimes you have to go front side and there are times you have to fall back protecting your legs and getting off (cut) blocks. Rey's only been cut once in the last five or six games. Last year he probably got cut dozens of times I would say. He's getting a lot better."
Guenther, who has backed Maualuga off the line of scrimmage so he gets more depth in pass coverage easier, says Maualuga played his best game of his 22 NFL starts at middle backer on Sunday and that the last three games have been solid. He says losing the weight on the program that began after the Sept. 23 win in Washington has improved every aspect of his game, particularly stamina and coverage.
Guenther says there were times on long drives Maualuga wouldn't be able to catch his breath long enough to make the call. No more.
"I think Rey felt like he needed the extra weight in the running game," Guenther says. "I told him the NFL is going in a different direction. It's more of a passing league. You have to cover the backs and tight ends."
And Guenther needed him to do that this season because his two nickel backers from last year, Thomas Howard and Brandon Johnson, are gone. When Howard went down with an ACL injury before the second game of the season (the Bengals didn't re-sign Johnson), the defense lost its most versatile backer who played all the downs.
"We needed Rey to do that because he was our most experienced linebacker," Guenther says. "Now he's playing all the snaps."
Guenther isn't a big fan about some of the grades he sees Maualuga getting on web sites. ProFootballFocus.com has him struggling in pass coverage as the fourth-most targeted inside backer in the NFL giving up the fourth-most yards.
But Guenther says Maualuga has played well the last three games and he expects even more improvement. On the last play of Sunday's first half, Maualuga forced Giants tight end Martellus Bennett to catch a touchdown pass out of bounds in the back of the end zone.
"He's been able to hold up in coverage," Guenther says.
But Sunday will be a game against the run.
"We have to take away," he says, "what they do best."