Rey Maualuga has never talked to Ray Lewis, but he got a return text once from his middle linebacker idol last year after Lewis congratulated him for a big hit in the 2010 opener.
"It said something like, 'Thanks Bro,' and I went ,'Ye-e-s,' " Maualuga recalled Thursday as he reenacted his fist-pump. "Things like that go a long way. A simple 'hi' or a simple 'hello.' "
Before Sunday's AFC North showdown in Baltimore against Lewis's Ravens (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), Maualuga plans to pay homage to Lewis by simply standing on the sidelines watching when Lewis is introduced to the home crowd. Lewis is the last Raven to be announced, but next to "Hail to the Chief," it is the most recognizable introduction in the country as Lewis works the crowd into a lather with a host of gyrations.
Now is a good time to remember that Maualuga is 24, which means he was nine when Lewis came into the league.
"I watched it a bunch of times on TV and YouTube," he said. "I've seen him do that even before I came to college. I'm just trying to take things from his game and mold them to mine and hopefully become the fierce intimidator he is. I just feed off that."
Maualuga says he's a work in progress. He was playing at a high level when he severely sprained his ankle in an Oct. 13 practice and missed the next three games. He came back last Sunday against the Steelers with seven tackles on a day the defense didn't give up a big play and held Pittsburgh to 3.5 yards per rush but paid for two sloppy drives that opened the game.
And, as usual, Maualuga is second-guessing himself. The Bengals won the games he was out, but they needed two guys to replace him with Dan Skuta on first and second down and Brandon Johnson on third. Maualuga is wondering if he should have played all 69 snaps Sunday. He admitted it was tough trying to get into condition because he couldn't pound on the treadmill, but he did do work on the underwater treadmill and the bike.
"You ask yourself questions," Maualuga said.
"If I didn't play, would we have won? They should have just put in Brandon and Skuta and I just take it off. Or play base and play what I could. Would they have still won?"
Of course, most everyone believes the Bengals are better off with Maualuga on the field. But this is Maualuga. He's extremely hard on himself. When the Steelers got the ball back after intercepting Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton with 2:27 left in the 24-17 loss, Maualuga says he missed a tackle on second and eight on a short pass that turned into a first down. The Bengals never got the ball back.
"Who knows?" Maualuga asked. "If it's third down and they have to punt? I'm hard on myself the whole time."
And that includes now as he frets about his play.
"I'm worrying too much," he said. "I'm worrying about going back to the sidelines and getting yelled at when I should just play. Make plays. The quarterback gets paid to make sure to get the ball in the receivers' hands. Whatever. The running back. I get paid to make tackles. I shouldn't be worried about getting yelled at. I should just go."
Maualuga is going to see how it's done Sunday. Usually, he sits down when the Bengals have the ball. Not now. He'll be standing up watching Lewis.
"I'll take notes," he said. "He's still active, still aggressive, still scary."
And what Maualuga doesn't see, linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald tells him how. FitzGerald coached Lewis for several seasons in Baltimore.
"Coach Fitz says (Lewis's) No. 1 asset is he has great eyes," Maualuga said. "He knows where to go. He knows which gaps to shoot."
Maualuga has been joking with Bengals public address announcer Tom Kinder about announcing him last. It doesn't look like that's going to happen anytime. But he could still do something when he gets called. On Sunday, he was just so happy to be back on the field, so he gave a little happy turn and wave, but that was it.
But now he's thinking about the next time the defense is introduced.
"I've got four weeks," he said. "Next week (against Cleveland) it's the offense's turn. Who do we play next? Houston? Dec. 11? I'll come up with something special for you."
No doubt, he'll be taking notes on Lewis even before the first snap.