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Matchup of the Game: goal to go

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*        Rey Maualuga has been in the middle of a stingy month vs. the run.      *


The Board hangs in the meeting room chaired by Bengals linebackers coach Matt Burke. It is where he has been placing the weekly goals for the past two games starting with the Duel in the Desert, which is about the time the 9-2 Bengals began a stretch run that careens into the division for the first time Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) against the 2-9 Browns in Cleveland.

Cincinnati Bengals host St. Louis Rams at Paul Brown Stadium in week 12 of the regular season.

"It's that time of year. We've all got long-term goals in mind, but from game to game we have some things in the room we can take care of," Burke says. "It's been fun. They've bought in. If it's limiting the tight end to catches or a running back to a certain amount yards or whatever   it is, they don't want to be the guy that gives up a catch or gives up this. It kind of starts raising the motivation."

A big reason they've bought in is that the ultra- competitive Burfict, the WILL backer, has brought along his partner in grime in the middle, Maualuga.

 "It's just something to keep us focused on during the week and we try to take one of their targets away," Burfict says. "It's helping us. We're 2-0 in our goals and we've got to keep it up."

The Board is indicative of why Burfict thinks this play-off push smells different than the ones he helped fuel in 2012 and 2013. Remember, with Burfict in the lineup the Bengals are 8-2 in December.

"It's a different type of push. We have so many leaders," Burfict says. "And so many guys have been playing together. I've played with Adam (Jones) since I've been here and I trust him. I trust Rey. I trust so many guys on the defense. If I mess up or miss a tackle, I know I've got backup. All my guys, they care about everybody on the defense and we're all in for one and we're all telling the truth and just run to the ball and make plays."

The first goal, according to Burfict, had been to hold Arizona tight end Jermaine Gresham to no catches and that was a resounding success because Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer never even targeted his former Bengals receiver. And last week The Board said to hold Rams running back Todd Gurley to fewer than 50 yards. When they held him to 19, it was another example of the firm of Tez, Rey & Scrooge remaining stingy against the run since Burfict came back from knee surgery five games ago after a year-long absence.

But no dice when asking Burfict for the goal in this one.

"I'll tell you after the game," he says.

So we're left to wonder what The Board decrees.

Holding tight end Gary Barnidge, Cleveland's top receiver with seven TDs and 55 catches, to less production than Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert? Making sure that running backs Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell don't exceed their combined yards per carry of 3.0? Making sure that Johnson doesn't do a lot of damage catching balls out of the backfield, where has grabbed 44, two touchdowns, and scooted for a long of 52 a la the backer matchup nightmare named Giovani Bernard?

Who knows? What we do know is that the Browns' decision on Wednesday to start Austin Davis at quarterback instead of Johnny Manziel probably had nary an impact on The Board.

"We're not underestimating anybody," Burfict says. "Johnny Manziel is a great quarterback and Davis did pretty well when he came into the last game. Whoever the quarterback is we're going to come out and play how we play. Physical. Knock the crap out of whoever has the ball and that's how we play. We're not focused on who's the quarterback. Obviously it's a different type of game with Johnny Manziel and Davis. Manziel might come in at halftime. We'll be ready for that, too."

Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the St. Louis Rams vs. Cincinnati Bengals game 11/29/2015

Burfict, the iPad Einstein, is right again. On Wednesday, Browns coach Mike Pettine kind of pump faked when asked by the Cincinnati media how long of a leash Davis has in this game with the elephant-in-the-stadium Manziel lurking on the bench.

"I never talk in terms of leashes in game with quarterbacks because it becomes self-fulfilling. A guy thinks, "Wow, one mistake and I'm out,'" Pettine said. "Yeah, if you have a quarterback that's having issues in a game, similar to hockey and you need to pull the goalie and just get him out to get his head cleared, I've been part of that before, but Austin is the starter for this game, and Johnny is No. 2. It's not 1A and 1B. It's 1 and 2."


Last year in Cleveland without Burfict the Bengals held the Browns to 53 yards rushing.

But Burfict and Maualuga might as well be 1A and 1B since they were reunited in the running game. The Bengals continue to give up one big run a game, but since Burfict has returned numbers don't lie.  The Bengals are allowing 88.6 rush yards per game since Nov. 1. Yes, two of those games have been against the ground-less Texans and Browns. But two were also against the NFL's No. 4 run game in the Cardinals and the league's No. 1 rookie running back in Gurley. If those 88.6 yards were plugged into the entire season, they would be third in the NFL against the rush, .1 behind Denver's heralded hit men.

"Me and Rey are so close on and off the field," Burfict says. "If anything goes wrong, he calls me. If I need something, I call him. When we're in there, we dedicate ourselves to stopping the run."

While Burfict and Maualuga feed off each other, Burfict says they're also getting a lot of help from tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins and that can turn into a feeding frenzy in the run game.

"Honestly, in a 4-3 defense you have to be physical (at linebacker)," Burfict says. "You have to be physical in our division. Rey and I are obviously 245 (pounds) plus and having offensive lines try to push Domata and get to the second level isn't easy. Our goal is for us to eliminate the dive coming down hill and for the O-linemen to be aware we're coming down hill and to be ready."

It will be recalled that Burfict's brilliant rookie year coincided with Atkins' break-out Pro Bowl season in 2012 and Burfict isn't seeing a lot of difference.

 "Geno's a character," Burfict says. "He doesn't talk to you much, but that guy does his job. He doesn't show any emotion or anything like that. But you know 100 percent that he's going to do his job and he's going to beat the guard and he's going to make sure that WILL linebacker is going to be free."

If Pettine doesn't know how long the leash is on Davis, the Bengals continue to keep Burfict on a relatively short one in the area between 35 to 40 snaps. On Sunday against the Rams it was 38 snaps for 52 percent of the plays (he was on the field for 16 of the Rams' 17 runs) and that seems just fine with him. He has indicated since he came back he feels like there are going to be a lot of big games starting in a few weeks.

"I'm still going through the motions,' he says of being faced with a training camp in November. "I feel good out there. I'm not tired. My legs feel good. If anything it's just getting the snap of everything. I feel like I'm able to re-direct and make plays and when the plays come to me I have to keep making them and just focus on the Browns."

Now it's up to The Board.

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