Updated: 7:25 p.m.
For a variety of reasons Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is going to have the adrenaline flowing Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-WLW-AM 700) against the Texans.
For one thing, he has never played in a postseason game, thanks to 2009's broken leg, and for another the Texans are bringing in their 1,000-yard backfield of Arian Foster and Ben Tate that is just going to smash it his way.
But the presence of Texans inside linebacker Brian Cushing is also going to light a fire. It always has, Maualuga said before Thursday's practice as he recalled his former USC teammate.
"There has always been a competition from the moment we stepped on the 'SC campus," Maualuga said. "There has always been not a tension, but (a competition). Who's going to start first, make an impact? Then it was once we were playing, who was going to be an All-American? Who was going to win an award? Then it jumped up to who was going to get drafted first? Then it jumped to who is going to make the Pro Bowl first?"
Maualuga, Cushing and Clay Matthews graced the now famous 2009 Sports Illustrated cover asking the question if they were the greatest college backer corps ever. And Maualuga grabbed his share of awards with the Bednarik as the nation's top defensive player.
Then Cushing got drafted first, 15th to the Texans and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Matthews went next, 26th to Green Bay and he's already a multiple Pro Bowler with a Super Bowl ring. Maualuga lasted to the second round, where the Bengals took him 38th and then asked him to learn the new position of SAM during his first two seasons before installing him in the middle in his third NFL season this year.
For the first in his NFL career, Maualuga is playing regularly on all three downs for the most part and is seven tackles away from the team tackling lead despite missing three games.
"I don't think it's where you play. It's how you pick up the defense and how you do on the field," Maualuga said. "I think I adjusted to what was called for and what was expected of me. I haven't played to my expectations because my expectations exceed everyone else's. I'm trying to play and trying to be coachable.
"But at the same time, when you're out there trying to do too much. And that messes things up. Missed tackles. Not making the plays you're supposed to make. Just trying to bounce back and be the person I know I can be."
Maualuga can't help but admire his old mates.
"(Cushing) and Clay have exceeded everyone's expectations," he said. "They've done some great things in the league. Clay's in the right scheme I think for his talent. Green Bay is using him perfectly. Cush played outside last year, this year he's moved inside and adjusted to it and is playing very well."
Maualuga has also moved inside but with less fanfare. He missed three games with a severe ankle injury but has impressed people around PBS by coming back and playing as soon as he did.
And while Maualuga has no sacks and no picks and Cushing and the Jets' David Harris are the only AFC inside or middle backers with multiple sacks and picks (three and two, respectively for Cushing), Maualuga is doing what neither Cushing nor Matthews are doing by calling the defenses and making checks.
Maualuga says he likes coordinator Mike Zimmer's scheme, but he's looking to gain consistency reining in his tendency to be too aggressive when he overruns plays.
"The scheme is easy; straightforward," he said. "Set the offense. Set the defense and play football. I'm not complaining. It's good. I love it."
Except for running back Rashard Mendenhall's five-yard touchdown run in which he let Mendenhall cut a toss sweep inside him, Maualuga said he got good grades last Sunday in Pittsburgh. And now he's looking forward to playing Houston's physical style.
"They're plain and simple," Maualuga said. "They're just going to line up. We're going to run the ball. You guys know what we're going to do. Try and stop us."
He admits Cushing has fired him up again.
"He's going to be making plays out on the field Sunday," he said. "No doubt about it."
ZIMMER WANTS MORE PICKS: After Thursday's practice, Zimmer let it be known he's unhappy with just six interceptions in the first 12 games and he's talking about sitting down unidentified people. The Bengals are tied with the Vikings and Browns for second fewest in the NFL, one ahead of the Colts.
"I'm going to start changing out guys if they don't start doing it," Zimmer said. "I'm going to tell them that today. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of guys getting balls caught on us. No interceptions. Instead of not seeing anything, I'll just change out guys. I'm just tired of guys getting balls caught on them."
The Bengals are on pace for a franchise-low eight interceptions.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» The Bengals are precariously close to not having two defensive regulars again for Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-WLW-AM 700) with left end Carlos Dunlap and cornerback Nate Clements not on the field for the second straight day this week. They also weren't on the side at the beginning of Thursday's practice, but they could have been working inside. Dunlap did work on the side Wednesday and Clements said before Thursday's practice that he hopes to play, "but I'm also going to be smart."
» On Thursday in Houston, Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (hamstring) didn't work for the second straight day and it's looking like he won't play Sunday. Texans coach Gary Kubiak expects Cushing (ribs, knee) to practice Friday after he sat Wednesday and Thursday. But Johnson is a big if.
"I would say we probably have a pretty good idea," Kubiak said Thursday of making a call Friday. "We'll see. It's a touchy situation because we are very fortunate. We came out of it a lot better than we thought. At the same time, how quick do we go back and do that type of thing? He has gotten good work inside in the last two days. Whether we bring him out here tomorrow probably will be a big deciding point on where we go in the game, so we'll see."
» Bengals Right tackle Andre Smith, who injured an ankle last Sunday, returned to the field for the first time this week and was limited. Running back Cedric Benson (foot), limited on Wednesday, didn't work Thursday but it's believed he hasn't suffered a setback and was just resting it.
» Also limited Thursday were center Kyle Cook (shoulder), safety Chris Crocker (knee), outside linebacker Brandon Johnson (knee), and running back Brian Leonard (knee). Rookie outside linebacker Dontay Moch is out with an illness.