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Next backer up


                                      Super sub Vincent Rey.

First of all, the Bengals linebackers could line up anywhere on Sunday at 1 p.m. (Cincinnati's Channel 12) when they play the Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium.

All we know is that defensive coordinator Paul Guenther may very well have his fourth different starting combination in the eighth game.

With two of their starters down, not to mention their Pro Bowl WILL backer who is their quarterback (Vontaze Burfict) and their middle linebacker who is their heart against the run (Rey Maualuga), and their safety blanket off the bench ready again (Vincent Rey) even though he is also a special teams co-captain, the coaches are relying on the versatility and flexibility they've taught the rest of a group that has played just a combined 718 NFL snaps.

But that's been the culture of the linebackers since Guenther took that job in 2012. That's when he groomed the rookie Burfict in 72 hours when he moved his position to take over for the injured Thomas Howard. Then in 2013 when Rey not only could have won AFC Defensive Player of the Week playing for Maualuga, but Guenther trained safety Taylor Mays in a week to play the injured SAM backer Emmanuel Lamur's  spot in the nickel pass package

"It's been different. When a guy like Rey goes out, man, that's a huge hit," Vinny Rey said. "Then when Vontaze goes out, too, and in one game E-Man wasn't playing, that's tough. These guys are big-time playmakers. It just allows us to get a chance to step up like this past week…when your name's called you're either prepared or not prepared. If you're not, the odds are somebody behind you is prepared."

It's almost like you need an Ivy Leaguer to figure it all. In that case, the Bengals are in luck since Matt Burke, a former Dartmouth safety, is in his first year coaching the linebackers during a tumultuous 11th season in the league. Burke broke it down when he presented the backers with Guenther's game plan Wednesday morning.

"I went to each player and said, 'These are the spots you need to know,' Burke said. "Here's what you need to know in nickel and in goal line and in base and in this package and this and make sure everyone knows when we're going through this. I want you to focus on these three things and I want you to focus on these two things,"' and so on in the room.

Start with Rey, the guy who plays anywhere any down as the first backer off the bench. This year that has meant he's made three starts in two different spots. Whether he lines up in the middle or WILL Sunday is anyone's guess.

"Be careful what you wish for," said Rey, who has already played 367 snaps this year after playing only 348 last season. "I really wanted to play a lot. I didn't know if I'd play at all because our linebacker corps is so deep. I'm thankful I got a chance, but soon enough we'll have all our guys back at some point and we'll be stronger than ever because all of the rest of us are going to have more experience and we'll be ready to go at the drop of a dime."

Rookie Marquis Flowers, a fifth-rounder from Arizona, is another guy that can move around, but he's only played 51 snaps in his career from scrimmage.

"He came in and made some plays last week," Rey said of Flowers' three snaps. "He's got knowledge. He almost made that interception on the sideline."

Sophomore Jayson DiManche has played about 100 snaps, mainly at SAM. And Niko Johnson, who just arrived here 15 days ago from the Kansas City practice squad, played his 18th and 19th NFL scrimmage snaps last Sunday, his first two as a Bengal.

At the moment, it's all about fit.

"That's what we have to do. Find the right guys to play the right spots," Burke said. "Guys like Vinny, Marquis, guys that play multiple spots for us, we've got some versatility there, we can move some guys around."

The 6-2, 249-pound Johnson looks like a nice fit. It's like talking to a southern version of New York City's Vinny Rey. In fact, Johnson teamed quickly with Rey last Monday when joined a group to go hand out food to the homeless downtown.

"But we had a special teams meeting that went long and we couldn't do it,' Johnson said Thursday. "I like to help, get involved.  I know that's what Vinny has done."

Rey plied his craft at Duke. Johnson, a native of Andalusia, Ala., stayed home to be near his ill mother, sick with diabetes. He became the middle linebacker in the middle of Alabama's run to back-to-back national titles before the Chiefs took him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.

Since Johnson's mother passed away when he was still in Tuscaloosa, he has become involved with the fight against diabetes in his hometown, where he has a lot of sway. Johnson and NBA ringmaster Robert Horry are the most famous alums of his high school, and he hopes to be able to bring the fight to Cincinnati if the football gets settled.  

Good fit? One of Johnson's best friends and college roommate freshman and sophomore years is Bengals rookie quarterback AJ McCarron.

"He's all about the team. Great teammate," McCarron said. "Class guy. Great head on his shoulders."

McCarron's scouting report:

"The thing about him is he loves special teams. He's one of these guys that studies real well and knows what your tendencies are. He's a really smart player from watching film."

Johnson looks to be a pure middle backer and the one question about him is if he's fast enough. But he thinks he can also get into the act and line up anywhere. He felt at home in Kansas City's 3-4, but the 4-3 here is more like what he ran at Bama.

"In this scheme, the WILL, MIKE, SAM are all the same," Johnson said. "The SAM walks out, the WILL walks out. No different. It's all the same. The MIKE is more of the run stuffer. I love the scheme here. Learning the terminology is the only hard thing. Reading the puller, reading the backs' steps, reading the quarterback's cadence. It's still football."

It's also still about finding a comfort level.

"I always tell the guys I think being a backup player in this league is the hardest thing to do," Burke said. "You don't get all the reps all the time in practice, but you have to be ready to be called on and prepare in the same manner. Really focus in meetings, study, be ready to go when your number is called."

We know that Rey is going to get the radio helmet and Lamur is probably going to get the backup because they've played the most snaps of anybody and they're going to get the call in nickel in passing situations.

But after that?

"Part of our preparation this week is putting different groups together and seeing who fits and what the best spots are for each guy and try to get them ready. As we've seen, it doesn't really matter," Burke said. "First play of the game something crazy could happen and we have to swap some guys out and do things. Every player in the room is ready at multiple spots."

Or as Rey said, "We're all going to play Sunday."

But where?

"We'll find out," Burke said.

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