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Matchup of the Game: brainy Burfict gets to lead another PBS stand


*Vontaze Burfict faces Johnny Football in Thursday night's Homecoming, his first PBS outing since Oct. 26, 2014.             *


With the unbeaten Bengals scrambling to get ready for Thursday's game against the Browns Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium (8:25 p.m.-Channel 12 and the NFL Network), it's easy to let what Burfict did last Sunday in Pittsburgh quickly fade to black.

But don't.

Because it was one of the most remarkable performances in Bengals history. And not just because he turned in 36 snaps in one of the most physical NFL games he's ever played, a stunning number considering he had his first practice in more than a year 72 hours before.

More than that, it was his command of the huddle, as if the last game he played, Oct. 26, 2014, had been a week ago.

Let Bengals linebackers coach Matt Burke explain it.

"He's one of the smartest players I've been around," says Burke, who has been around plenty of brains as a Dartmouth product. "I'm not sure many linebackers in the NFL could do that. Over a year he basically practiced one day and he went out there and had success. Physically, no question it was impressive. But in terms of being mentally sharp, knowing our game plan, being able to recognize sets, and communicate stuff, to do that all mentally in one day of practice is hard."

It is so impressive that Burfict even had his usually taciturn head coach, Marvin Lewis, spewing superlatives this week.

"He's got an incredible football intelligence and great passion to play. He's so doggone smart," Lewis says. "He comes back in and steps back in and does things as though he's been doing it the whole time, which is a credit to him."

Indeed, after cornerback Adam Joes greeted him in the moments after the win in Pittsburgh, Burfict was grousing about a check-down he missed.

"He's essential," Lewis says. "He showed that when he wasn't playing. I could be talking to a guy and he could tell him exactly what I was trying to give the guy, the exact principle I was trying to relate to. And he could handle it and reinforce it because he understands it like a coach does."

Burfict's brains are exactly what they're looking for in the re-match with the NFL callow Manziel. Burfict didn't play in the first game last Dec. 14, when the Bengals spoiled J. Football's first NFL start in decisive fashion, a 30-0 money grab in a stand that produced his miserable 27.3 passer rating that consisted all of 80 yards.

While the 6-0, 210-pound Manziel isn't as raw or as bad as he was that day, you figure the Bengals are still going to challenge his inexperience. He's only had two more starts, he's thrown just 85 NFL passes, they've gone only an average of 5.8, and he's completed just 54 percent of them.

In the 6-1, 250-pound Burfict defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has a smart, seasoned guy in the middle of the field that can get the Bengals in and out of varying looks, something they did up in Cleveland last year to test Manziel. On Thursday night, Manziel, still a student, is faced with Burfict's doctorate of defense. He continues to amaze the coaches. They'll be upstairs critiquing film and when they get downstairs, he'll come up to them first and say, "That was my fault, I didn't get in the gap in time," or some such X and O.

  "From the outside looking in, that might not be the perception," Burke says. "But he's really, really smart. He's really into it. To be able to plug that in, he's got great retention. He remembers plays in the past and why something didn't work. He remembers all that."

Guenther, no doubt, recalls last year's game plan. After his first NFL shutout, he revealed he had watched Manziel on tape play LSU and Missouri while at Texas A&M, and tried to close off his left.

 "They kind of moved him one side and kept him in the pocket. Those were his worst two games in college, so you could see obviously what their plan was, to keep him in the pocket or move him to a side where he wasn't throwing," Guenther said then. "You had to go look at all of the resources of everything to try to get a feel for this guy."

But before that game, as he probably is now, Guenther was petrified of Manziel's tremendous play-making ability, his cat-like quickness out of the pocket, and his eyes-in-back-of the-head awareness. All he has to do is look at Manziel's touchdown passes of 54 and 60 yards to wide receiver Travis Benjamin this season.

Containing him in a shrinking pocket is, of course, the key to stopping Manziel. They can't let him get outside the numbers, so it is paramount to slow him down by making him decipher an array looks.

Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms, analyzing the game for NFL Network, expects a different Manziel than the 27.3 of last Dec. 14.

"I really think that day changed him,' Simms says. "What little he's played this year (one start, three relief appearances) you can see he's trying to do the right thing. What happened to Johnny Manziel happened early in training camp. He couldn't run around like he thought he was going to be able to do in the NFL. We're going to see a different quarterback than we saw back then. I would expect more trying to do the play, and if they force you to run, that's when you run. A little more of that.

"Some of those habits, you can't break them in one year. It takes longer than that."

PBS is a tough place for a young guy to come in and win. Brian Hoyer did it for the Browns last year, but he's been one of the few exceptions lately. In the last 23 regular-season home games, the Bengals are 19-3-1 and have taken down six Super Bowl championship quarterbacks and a Heisman Trophy winner in that run. If they win Thursday, Manziel would be the second Heisman winner to go on the mantle. They let a third, Cam Newton, escape in a tie.

The last time Burfict played at PBS, he helped the Bengals beat Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and his Ravens. He's had a hand in all those big-QB hunting games except for one, the overtime win over Russell Wilson's Seahawks.

His brains and brawn are going to test Manziel's resume of three NFL starts, as well as those natural instincts that help Burfict seemingly make every tackle imaginable.

"He's underrated as an athlete. People just go off what he did at the combine, where he didn't test well," Burke says. "But for a player his size to do the things he does, his reaction skills are elite."

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