While the NFL flirts with a lockout, Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga tries to find the key to a game that disappointed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer labeled "very average."
As he left Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday, Maualuga pondered the words that had been sent to him by his agent in a recent interview Zimmer did about his evaluation about the defense.
"It's a good thing he said that, then again, why did he single me out?" Maualuga asked. "I don't know. I could have seen it in a bad way. Then again, it's a good thing. This organization expected a lot of me when I first stepped in this place. Then again, I expect a lot out of myself as well."
The numbers? Third on the team with 81 tackles, two interceptions, one sack, two passes defensed, no forced fumbles, no fumble recoveries.
"If you ask the fan sitting out there in the stands what stood out from Rey this year, I'm pretty sure people would say not much," he said. " 'OK, he made a play here and there. San Diego interception.' I respect what Coach Zimmer said and I'd back it up 100 percent. I really didn't do anything. I was average this year. I wasn't satisfied with how I performed."
Maualuga isn't the only player Zimmer crawled all over while evaluating how the defense slid from No. 4 to 15 in the rankings. He said everyone on it was undisciplined and that Maualuga has to get his game under control if he's going to replace Dhani Jones in the middle in his third season. Maualuga admits he has to find a middle way between his aggressive all-out style and playing within the scheme.
"I tend to just keep opening up, and just playing football. It's a game complicated by coaches," he said. "Sometimes you just want to go out there … then again, you want to be coachable to make them feel comfortable to know that a guy can go do what you want. I guess you've got to go through the steps."
Then Maualuga can recite chapter and verse Zimmer's concerns.
"It's attention to detail. It's the little things," Maualuga said. "If you don't do one thing right, it messes up a whole bunch of little things. I think everyone had something to do with that, to try and become the defense we wanted to, but stepped out of it a little bit because you were doing your own little thing. Just on my part, if I could have done this and done that, I could have helped the guys around me. Nothing more to it."
Maualuga, the nation's defensive player of the year as USC's playmaking middle linebacker, was drafted in the second round in 2009 with the idea that he would eventually replace Jones. In order to keep Jones' smarts in the middle, the Bengals made Maualuga a SAM backer for the first time in his life. Now with Jones set for free agency, one of the countless offseason questions is if Maualuga is ready to handle the middle.
"I don't think playing time is going to tell if I'm ready. It's either now or...," said Maualuga, hearing the critics already. " 'Oh, he hasn't had enough time to play Mike to really grasp it.' I don't think that's the case, I just have to learn it. Get on the field and play. I can. I know some of it."
Maybe even more important than the mechanics of the middle this upcoming season is his approach to be more in the middle of it in the locker room. Maualuga is very aware of the critics as evidenced by the T-shirt he wore Thursday. "I (heart) Haters."
And he's pumping that negativity into a goal to become a team leader.
"It's my time to stand up and prove them wrong," Maualuga said. "Use it as a fuel to gain what I know I can become. I can't be just some random dude walking around the locker room anymore.
"I just watched from my perspective (as) a beginner, a rookie. Through the eyes of guys like Brandon Johnson, Dhani. The vets. Domata (Peko), (Antwan) Odom. Now it's my third year in, it's about time to step it up, about time to wake up and play, wake up and learn, because things don't get handed to you. You grab it. That's my approach. Only I will define whether I'm ready for it or not based on my actions."