BENGALS WLB VONTAZE BURFICT VS. PATRIOTS QB TOM BRADY
"55 is The Mike. 55 is The Mike."
Burfict, No. 55, is going to hear that a lot from Brady during Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium, according to former Bengals and Patriots defensive back Artrell Hawkins, a voice of the Bengals Radio Network.
That doesn't mean Burfict is the middle linebacker. It's just the indicator, Brady's way of counting the defenders and setting the protection, Hawkins says. If Burfict and the Bengals have disguised their defense well enough, Brady won't have the right protection in spite of the Mike call and they'll have a shot to get him. If they haven't, then one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time with one of the most lethal brains that ever executed an audible gets his shot.
Just one of the many reasons if the upstart Bengals are to usurp the reincarnated Patriots in a game of AFC superiority, Burfict, one of the club's new breed of cool cats that has to come up large. Burfict may be in his final days of anonymity if the NFL not only notes his league-leading 42 tackles, but also what the people in Cincinnati watching tape see as a Pro Bowl football intellect.
"If Vontaze Burfict cut his hair and got a dance, they'd be calling him Ray Lewis," Hawkins says. "He's super-duper smart. He shows up. He's instinctive. He's faster than you think. I'd like to see him make some more splash plays, but who's a better playmaker on this defense? Vontaze is always around the ball."
Former Bengals offensive lineman Dave Lapham, the club's radio analyst, calls it "Football IQ."
"Tez has a very big football IQ," Lapham says. "He doesn't have the tunnel vision on what he's supposed to see. He sees it all. Tez understands the defensive front. He understands the linebackers fitting into safeties and corners. He sees the big picture. You saw that when he came in playing the middle last year as a rookie and stepped in and played WILL or the first time and he did it so well and so quickly."
Burfict, who sets the huddle and relays Zimmer's call while getting people lined up, turned a precocious 23 a mere two days after he played all 81 snaps in the remarkable Sept. 22 win over Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He saved his best for last, the timeout before the fourth-and-five that proved to be the last play of the game. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer called one play, but Burfict talked him into another one. No one is saying what, but the Bengals hung with their four-man pressure and covered the passing lanes and got right end Michael Johnson's tipped pass to win it.
"Zim trusted Burfict's instincts," Lapham says. "Tez will have to do that Sunday. Trust that Zim has him in the right spots. He did it against Aaron Rodgers. Tez's big challenge is he can't try to do too much. He can't say, 'If I get over two steps, I can make this happen,' because Brady will make you pay. You can't bait Brady. You usually end up eating the hook."
Let's see. Burfict, like Brady, 36, a native Californian, was a freshman in high school when Brady first played the Bengals in 2004. Two generation of football intellectuals going at it. Burfict may have even learned some Xs and Os from a computer game Brady at one point.
Burfict has to play a two-way game. It is odd to hear a defense that is preparing for a Hall of Fame quarterback say it is looking to stop the run. But if Brady is able to go play-action, it won't be fun. According to Pro Football Focus, he's thrown the most play-action passes in the league this year (47) and while his numbers aren't great (2 TDs, no picks, 59.6 percent completions, 79.9 passer rating) try and tell the Falcons that. Bengals cornerback Adam Jones says the defense looked at 32 snippets from Sunday night as Brady put together an impressive road win in Atlanta.
Lapham: "That offensive line is such a key to what they do. The tackles are huge at 6-8, 340 and (Pro Bowl guard Logan) Mankins is an absolute mauler, a great player. They come downhill on you. So do the backs. The big thing for the linebackers and safeties is they make the run and play-action pass look the same. If Brady catches you cheating up, he's got you. But you have to respect their running game. He puts you in a hard spot."
The Bengals think they have something here in the 6-1, 255-pound Burfict. An emerging Pro Bowler, perhaps. All-Pro brains with all-star toughness. No one doubts his toughness. He's missed just five of the defense's 273 snaps despite taking a shot in the thigh in the opener that limited him in practice the next week and getting his neck dinged in Cleveland last Sunday that kept him put out of practice. But he's expected to play.
Not only is he tough, he's one of the few Bengals to come along in the Marvin Lewis era that will tell the other team he's tough and then back it up. He's got some stuff in his neck, as Lapham says. There's a delicate balance between the recklessness in college that drew 16 personal fouls in 26 college game and led to him not getting drafted, and his infectious relentlessness that defines his game. Burfict certainly gives the Bengals an edginess that other teams have cut them with down through the years.
"Vontaze is one of these players that isn't afraid to mix it up and that's cool, but my advice to him on Sunday is not to get into a contest with Brady," Hawkins says. "Tom's the most competitive guy in the stadium. He's competitive with linebackers. He and (Mike) Vrabel would go at it in practice and they would forget about it after, but it would get pretty contentious. The guy is an ultra-competitor."
Linebackers coach Paul Guenther says Burfict can get better. The Browns were able to get some key running yards and the defense is looking to generate more turnovers. Burfict had the first of the team's three interceptions. But Guenther knows Burfict is going to be in the right spot grinding on every snap.
"Not many guys can come off the field and tell you what happened," Guenther says. "You come into the meeting room on Monday and it's exactly what he told you. It's great having a guy like that. He doesn't panic."
And the Bengals know they'll need their cool in the face of Brady's ice.