Matchup of the Game: 'Everybody feeds off him'

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His coaches say Vontaze Burfict is back to Pro Bowl form.

BENGALS WLB VONTAZE BURFICT VS. EAGLES RB DARREN SPROLES:

Pretty straight forward for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals' best defensive player vs. the Eagles' best offensive player.

There is always so much buzz and clicks and posts about Burfict that you can forget he's a heck of a football player and as well as Public Enemy No. 1. The focus is on the baggage and, sometimes, the flight gets lost.

Don't look now but his linebackers coach Jim Haslett, a Pro Bowl linebacker himself, says not only have the stat keepers ripped him off, so will the voters if they don't send him to his second Pro Bowl after this season even though he missed the first three games.

"I think he's playing as well as anyone in the league," Haslett says, "If there is, I'd like to see him. I know he missed three games, but did you see how many tackles he had Sunday?"

After the Nov. 6 bye, Burfict's play has been off the charts as he settles in following his three-game suspension that opened the season. But that would suggest September and October weren't as good and, well, as Bengaldom knows, it doesn't take much to stoke his infamous competitive fire.

 "I'd been out almost a year, what did you want me to do?" Burfict asks. "I think I have been playing at a high level."

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis smiles when he hears about the exchange.

"It wouldn't be Vontaze if he didn't take offense to something," Lewis says with a laugh. "He's done a nice job. He's playing with great energy. He's been very, very productive … He is going to fight and scratch all the time. It's what he does. You just have to keep him pointed in the right direction and make sure he's taking care of the details and little things of his work. Everybody feeds off him."

They are feeding off him in a three-game stretch in which the defense has reached back into last year and kept teams off the scoreboard. They played well enough to sweep  November, holding teams to 21, 16, and 19 points. In the last two games, the only touchdowns they allowed were in the game's first five minutes. In the last three games, foes are just 35 percent on third down.

"We've all been putting our feet down and watching film together and understanding the season is coming to an end and it's either now or never," Burfict says.

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Paul Guenther, Burfict's linebackers coach in that Pro Bowl season of 2013. sees some similarities.

Burfict is playing so well that his defensive coordinator thinks he's playing as well as, well, as 2013 and his Pro Bowl year he led the NFL in tackles.

"Close to right there," Paul Guenther says.  "He wasn't here for three weeks. It's natural (to ease into it). It wasn't like he was playing terrible. He's playing better the last two or three weeks.

"High level. A lot of energy … He's playing at his highest level probably ever."

Burfict is coming off back-to-back 13-tackle games and as if to show off his 21st century versatility, one came when he was the middle linebacker in the base defense and once came when he was the WILL backer in the base defense.

But that's nothing. By Haslett's own count, he's got Burfict for double-digit tackles in all eight of his games, charted him for 18 tackles in Baltimore last Sunday, and  estimates he's got about 104 tackles and not the 76 the press box spotters have given him. That would put Burfict  fifth in the league behind guys who have played every game. There is Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (117), Cleveland inside linebacker Christian Kirksey (114), Bill inside linebacker Zach Brown (107) and Cowboys outside linebacker Sean Lee (105).

And the thing about Burfict is, you can't box him up and label him one position. The Bengals put him everywhere but SAM backer in every package. He plays the WILL and middle in the nickel and dime. He lines up as an edge rusher. He also plays the hybrid down lineman-backer spot where he can rush or drop and that's how he got a pressure last week in Baltimore. He also may be coming down the chimney at some point this month.

Students at Sycamore High School have new motivation to stay healthy thanks to a grant from the Bengals and the American Dairy Association Mideast.

The versatility isn't remarkable in this day and age for linebackers. But to see an old-school, 255-pound linebacker do it is. The profootballfocus.com ranking of 4-3 outside linebackers rate him first at that position in run-stopping efficiency, second in pass-rushing efficiency and just outside the top ten in coverage.

And there are his instincts. Sometimes they hurt him because he knows what's coming before everybody else and he tries to take a shortcut. Like the big pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski in New England. But there was also the draw play in Baltimore Sunday when he read the running back's hop step and smothered him for a five-yard loss.

"I don't know who else does that," Haslett says.

"He's part of the evolution of the game," says fellow Bengals linebacker Karlos Dansby, who was there at the creation when he was drafted in 2004. "You have to understand, when I came into the game, it was all downhill. You had to plug the gap coming downhill and blitz the quarterback as well. It was a different time."

But Dansby has seen enough in this time to confirm what is happening. Burfict is taking his place among the elite again.

"From my view he's playing pretty good. He's having fun out there," Dansby said. "He's just relentless to the ball. His pursuit, his ability to play downhill, and the angles. It's real good. I've been around a lot of good linebackers, but he's playing real good in those angles, his ability to get downhill on those angles is crucial. You have to be able to do it all if you want to be considered one of the best."

Burfict says he's simply a smarter player than he was three years ago.

"I'm understanding the game a lot more," Burfict says. "Coach Haslett has been giving little details down to us so we can play faster in the run scheme and with the pass scheme understanding route concepts. Understanding the down and distance so we're prepared for what route combinations are coming."

One guy who is impressed with Burfict's ability to read routes is Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, an old quarterback himself.

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Linebackers coach Jim Haslett: the numbers don't lie.

"If you're a receiver or tight end running across the middle you have to keep your head on a swivel because he's the type of guy," says Pederson, pausing to make sure he's understood. "Which is perfect. Defenses teach linebackers to disrupt timing of routes and he's good at that and he's smart and he understands route combinations."

Look at the Steve Smith Sr. play last week in Baltimore. It's emblematic of Burfict's season so far. What happened at the end of the play got more play than the play itself.

Haslett is amazed Burfict got criticized for flopping when Smith got up under his helmet, drawing a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. To Haslett, it was a clean play that shows Burfict's razor instincts.

"We try to teach them if you get a shallow cross, legally if he's within the five-yard area,  why cover him?" Haslett asks. "Get your hands on him and knock him down and knock him off his route. (Burfict) had the presence on a shallow cross to catch Steve, put his hands on him and knock him down. He's a powerful guy. When Steve started to get up, he knocked him down again and when he jumped up and he hit Vontaze, Vontaze did his thing.

"There were people who criticized him for flopping and I asked them, 'Who has the awareness to do that in a split-second reaction on the football field?' Who would think even in a split-second to do that? I think he's learning how to play the game in the parameters of what he's supposed to do. Playing within the game and the rules,  he's been outstanding."

Of course, they would prefer he keep his other emotions in check, such as when he gave the finger to a fan behind the Bengals' bench at Paul Brown Stadium two weeks ago, an act that cost him another $12,500 via a fine. But the only thing he regrets is the fan wasn't in his seat when he did the deed.

"He was in the first row. He was talking crap the whole game," Burfict said. "I was like, 'I hear him, I hear him, I hear him.' And I kept making plays and there was one play I came back on the sideline and he threw something. I went back on the field and made like two stops and I was like, 'Screw that guy,' pretty much. Talking doesn't mean anything, but once you throw something it's a different story."

Burfict isn't sure what was thrown. He didn't even see it. The Bengals have no record of an ejection from that section that day, but a teammate told him, "Damn Tez, he threw something at you."

"I looked back and saw it on the floor. Oh, OK. The funny thing is when I flipped him off, he wasn't there …. 'Oh, I take it back.' He wasn't up there, so it was pointless. Whatever. (The fine) doesn't matter. Twelve grand, come on now."

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Haslett would like to see him tamp down such outbursts, but it comes from the same fuel that is firing this current rampage of Pro Bowl defense. Pederson saw something else on tape.

"He's a leader of that team and leader of that defense. He's actually elevated his game," Pederson says. "He's not only made that defense better down the stretch, he's made himself better and put himself in a good position." 

With A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard going down, there is even more pressure on Burfict's defense. He's playing it as straight as that matchup with Sproles, most dangerous out of the backfield as a receiver.

"Next man up. They're great guys, great playmakers on the team. But Rex (Burkhead), Brandon LaFell, Tyler  Boyd have to step up and the same thing with defense," Burfict says. "We have to stop them from scoring because we're down a couple of our playmakers, so we just have to stop them from scoring. It's a team game. We've got faith in Rex, Tyler Boyd, LaFell to get the job done. That's why they're on this team still."

Like most of his teammates, he's never had a losing season in the pros so Burfict is taking the temperature of the room, He likes the feel. It is still hot. Just the way he likes it.

"That's one thing about this team. We're never going to quit," Burfict says. We're going to fight to the end. I've noticed that about this team. We're all fighters and that comes from Marvin all the way down to the players. Marvin keeps reminding us, never quit no matter what day it is. That's one thing about us. We'll keep fighting and hopefully there comes a victory."

Haslett knows, at the very least, there are going to be a bunch of tackles.

"I don't know of anyone else in the league playing better," Haslett says.

 

Bengals Players make an appearance at Dick's Sporting Goods store for Marvin Lewis Community Fund - Shop With A Pro Event 11/28/2016

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