If A.J. Green, Andy Dalton and Andrew Whitworth are the faces of the Bengals with their no-frills-embrace-the-grind-anti-fantasy-stats approach, then we give you WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict as the heart and soul of the AFC North leaders.
Undrafted by the league and unloved by the gurus during his college career, Burfict is making a relentless run at the Pro Bowl logging an inexhaustible 99 percent of the snaps for a defense that has kept the 5-2 Bengals in every game. Barking signals, setting the huddle, lining up defenders, diving at runners and running with receivers, Burfict is finally providing the edgy leadership on the field that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has given his players in the meeting room the past six seasons.
Burfict leads the NFL in tackles. Depending on who you ask, the number varies. NFL.com has him for 74 tackles and the Bengals coaches have him for 93. But there's a consensus among his mates that Burfict is just plain leading as the NFL's ninth-best defense gets ready to play the Jets this Sunday (4:05 p.m.) at Paul Brown Stadium.
"His demeanor is something that is contagious; it makes you want to play that style of football," safety Taylor Mays said Wednesday. "You don't want to let a guy like that down."
Tough? Burfict is kind of like a 21st century Jim Brown on defense. He slowly gets up after the tackle, shakes off a shot, limps back to the huddle, and then blasts people at the snap.
Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is having the best of his five seasons and it's no coincidence he's doing it next to Burfict.
"He's the real deal. It's always about competition. Who is going to get to the ball first? Being able to play alongside him with that fire, that energy that he wants to get to the ball first, that makes everything that much easier for me," Maualuga said. "Flat out, it's the real deal. He's what you want in a linebacker. One, he's mean. Two, he can walk the walk and talk the talk. Not mean to us. Mean to the opponents. He's a great teammate."
Burfict and Maualuga have helped the Bengals to a No. 8 ranking in rushing and they'll have to be good Sunday because not only do the Bengals face a New York team that ran it more than 50 times in its win over the Patriots last week, but the Jets defense is second in the NFL against the run.
"No, not at all," Burfict said before Wednesday's practice when asked if he thinks the Jets will try to pound the Bengals in similar fashion. "Whatever they do, we'll be ready for it. They're probably going to find out in the first 15 to 20 snaps that the run is going to be pretty hard against our front seven. I was telling Rey, 'Man, I hope it rains. They'll be forced to run.' "
The Lions seemed to use the run as more of an afterthought last Sunday, so Burfict isn't so impressed with how the Bengals held them to 77 yards on 25 carries.
"The run was a piece of cake. I feel like me and Rey taking care of the run this year, we're leaving the offense one-dimensional, which is passing," Burfict said. "Passing on our D-line and secondary is tough."
That edginess has been a blessing and a curse for Zimmer. Burfict fell into the Bengals lap after the 2012 draft in some measure because he had scared off so many teams because of his undisciplined actions that famously racked up 16 personal fouls in 26 games at Arizona State. Zimmer knows everyone is walking a line and he admitted he's had to remind Burfict as recently as this month not to cross it.
"Might have," Zimmer said with a glimmer of a smile. "He's a good kid. He's the kind of football player you like. He's got a little edge to him, but he's a smart guy, too. He just has to be smart, not do stupid things. He's a smart guy. He's a good football player and that's what he needs to do; just play football."
That's what the league told the club Burfict was doing in Buffalo two weeks ago on two of his three personal fouls: just playing football. He had an inadverdent facemask in there, but the league told the club last week that upon further review his tackle on a diving quarterback and his hit over the middle while the ball was still being juggled shouldn't have been called.
All of which is a little bit of a relief for Burfict as he tries to figure out what he can and can't do.
"It was kind of frustrating, like, man, what else can I do? I don't know if I should hit the guy or should I tie them off?" Burfict said. "It's tackle football at the end of the day. I got the letter saying their apology and I am going to stick to my script and keep playing how I play.
"They sent a letter saying it shouldn't have been called. Their apology. That's going to happen in the NFL. There's bang-bang plays. Sometimes the ref will probably see something that should be called or shouldn't be called. They sent a letter saying it shouldn't be called and let the refs know that it shouldn't be called next time."
Even before the NFL corrected itself the Bengals thought it was a good idea to follow Burfict's lead. Zimmer counseled him before the season that he should take more of a leadership role. He also warned him about NFL notoriety and not to fall back into the ways of Arizona State.
Now his teammates are feeding off Burfict. Like his competition with safety Reggie Nelson for a game ball last week.
"Reggie came up to me before the Lions game and was like, 'I'm going to be more fired up and play better than you.' I was like, all right. So, we went out there and competed. That helps as a defense. We compete each play. At the end of the day we want each other to do well," Burfict said. "Yeah, he was serious because I got the game ball and he looked me like, man, 'Forget you!' We are going to keep competing all season and get each other better."
Burfict, one of the youngest Bengals who just turned 23 two days after he played all 81 snaps against the Packers, has been watching the oldest Bengal very closely. He's got a good view because SAM linebacker James Harrison lockers next to him.
Harrison has 12 years on him, but you can forgive Burfict if he feels 35 on some of these Monday mornings. He's played all but one snap of the Bengals three-game winning streak and according to the NFL he's played 478 of 484 plays. So he's gone the Harrison route and turned to acupuncture. He says so far, so good.
"(I) feel like every time she puts it in or have something tight, I can feel my muscle starts moving. Then right when I'm done, I usually feel like I played a game," Burfict said. "The next day it feels a little more sore. So then I get a hot tub and some Epson salts. Next day after that I feel like Week 1."
Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis have been huge factors in Burfict's improbable transition from off-the-draft board to Rookie of the Year candidate to the threshold of the Pro Bowl. Lewis connected with him during the draft process and Zimmer has tapped the potential.
"All credit to Zim. He puts in great schemes and all we do is go out there and execute it," Burfict said. "He calls great blitzes on great downs. When you're out there playing for Zim it's a different story because if you mess up you're going to have to hear it from him. All 11, we just go out there to try and prevent that so Zim can have a good day the next day."
Zimmer is why Burfict is hesitant to say the defense is an extension of himself, even if others will.
"I say it's Zim," Burfict said. "If we mess up, he's yelling at us. I think his anger and his aggression reflects on us. We're going to go out there and play for him and only for him."
Mays can see it because he's watched how Burfict has bought everything that Zimmer has sold.
"He's a person that really buys into Zim's defense. He gets the most benefit out of anybody because he buys in and just fits in," Mays said. "Zim's a tough guy and he wants to put his foot on the offense's throat and that's the kind of football player Vontaze is."