Vontaze Burfict didn't practice Monday, but it's unclear if that means he's out of Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Pittsburgh and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis offered no clues before he walked to the practice field Monday afternoon.
"We're wasting time talking about someone not on the team,' said Lewis of Burfict (knee), in his second week of eligibility to come off the physically unable to perform list. "When he's ready to come off rehab, he's ready."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was much more definitive after Sunday's loss in Pittsburgh about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (knee), saying he expects him to start against the Bengals.
Lewis told NFL Radio during last week's bye that Burfict's rehab during the bye week was "crucial." The Bengals worked out in shells Monday, so maybe they're waiting to Wednesday to see how he practices in pads.
Or maybe not. Although following a conversation with Lewis after Monday's rehab session with fellow sidelined players Cedric Ogbuehi and Sean Porter, Burfict took a smooth running start and tried to leap over a tackling dummy on his way back to the locker room. So who knows what it all means.
As far as defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is concerned, Burfict is one of his A.J. Greens. If Burfict plays Sunday, it changes everything.
"No question. There are some matchups and different things you can do with a player like that," Guenther said. "He's one of our best players when he's in there. It's no different than having a top running back or top receiver. Your plan changes. Certainly when he gets back, it will be good."
Exhibit A and B are the two games they played against Pittsburgh last season without him, when the Steelers offense got a handle on them late in each victory. In the first game on Dec. 7 the Steelers rolled up a mind-numbing 543 yards, 193 of them on the ground. In the AFC North title game three weeks later, Roethlisberger coaxed out 317 of their 346 total yards in the air in a game the Bengals lost with three turnovers.
When Burfict played in the 2013 win at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals held them to just 278 yards and only 44 on the ground while his 11 tackles and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's 13 led thed way. When the Bengals lost the re-match that December, they still allowed only 290 yards and gave the Steelers just 2.9 yards per 36 rushes as Burfict logged a game-high 13 tackles. And in the 2012 Wild Wild Card Game in Pittsburgh in Week 16 the Bengals and Steelers needed to go to the playoffs, Burfict had a game-high dozen as they held Pittsburgh to 2-for-14 on third down and 3.1 yards per 31 rushes.
It's not exactly coincidence, but at the moment not only does Guenther not know if he has Burfict, he also knows he won't have him for all the snaps if he does play Sunday.
"We'll monitor him," Guenther said. "It's just like anybody else. It's like coming into training camp. You're not going to be in football shape right away, so you can't play a whole bunch of snaps right away. We'll have to ease him into it when he gets back."
So it's going to be to the guys that had to do it last year if not Tez: Vincent Rey in Burfict's spot, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and Emmanuel Lamur getting help from newcomer A.J. Hawk at SAM. But the good thing, Guenther says, when Burfict is ready, he's ready. Even if it's just for 20 snaps or so.
"From an Xs and Os standpoint, I think he can pick it up in a day. I mean he's that smart," Guenther said. "He knows our system inside and out. From a physical standpoint, everyone's different. I remember (in 2013) he hurt his ankle in practice on Friday or Thursday. When we were traveling to San Diego he was in a boot. He was in a boot on Saturday, and he went out on Sunday and played one of his best games as a Bengal. So all guys are different. Once he gets out there, whenever he does, and he gets going, it's all going to be feel at that point."
No one ran on the Bengals in 2013 when they were ranked No. 3 in defense, fifth against both the run and pass. Not with Burfict and Maualuga teamed with former Steeler James Harrison at linebacker when the Bengals were in a regular set.
Harrison, of course, is in his second season during his Pittsburgh reincarnation, and on Monday Guenther talked about how much he enjoyed coaching one of the league's most ferocious figures in his last season as the Bengals linebackers coach in that '13 season.
"We almost got in a fight one day, and that was scary," Guenther said. "I yelled and screamed at him in a pass (drill) on Friday because I told him, 'We're going to get this play,' and he messed up the play and I ripped him. We were going nose-to-nose and I think, 'Oh boy, I'm going to lose this.'
"I said, 'Hey, you guys had my back in that one, right?' But a few plays later, he's standing next to me and I say, 'You know I would have kicked your (butt), right?' He put his arm around me. He's good like that. Like I said, he's a true pro at what he does. He's the toughest (SOB) in there. It was a pleasure coaching him . . . I loved him. James and I had a great relationship; we still talk to this day. He's a tough competitor. He works his butt off at what he does."
ROSTER HEALTH: The 53-man active roster looks like it's going to have another healthy week of practice. Right end Michael Johnson (ankle) and WILL backer Vincent Rey (ankle), who limped off the field late in the Oct. 18 win over Buffalo, were on the field. So was slot cornerback Leon Hall (back) after he missed the game against the Bills.
Rotational defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry (unknown) looked to be the only member of the 53 not working, but he wasn't on the rehab field and he looked pretty chipper bouncing around the D-line drills.
BEN EXPECTED HERE, TOO: When it comes to Roethlisberger, there's not much surprise in the Bengals locker room that he'll be back for from the knee injury he suffered a month ago. He's piled up a lot of respect in there this decade while ringing up a 17-6 record against them. For one thing, he's never missed a start against them. And Guenther says he'd just as soon face him Sunday.
"Every time this guy gets hurt, he makes this remarkable recovery," Guenther said. "I wouldn't t want it any other way . . . I totally mean that . . .We're going to have to beat the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback at some point in time this season to get to where we want to go. Why not Sunday?"
And there is Bengals linebacker Chris Carter, who played 29 games with the Steelers from 2011-2013 and has never doubted Roethlisberger would play Sunday despite the knee injury.
"He's a tough guy. I respect the heck out of him," Carter said. "I'm not surprised he'll be coming back this week. I've seen him come back from nasty stuff before."