This is why the Bengals covet Rey Maualuga:
"No. 1, it was great just having him in the huddle. Having his face in the huddle. And No. 2 I think everyone who watched the game saw how much he comes down hill. He's a great anticipator. He sees the ball, goes. He can lay the wood, man. I know other team really felt it."
That is the voice of fellow linebacker Vincent Rey last season moments after Maualuga had helped the Bengals commandeer a season-changing 27-10 victory in New Orleans. After missing four games with a hamstring injury that was originally supposed to take him out of seven games, Maualuga sucked it up and sparked a goal-line stand that shut down the Saints' No. 2 offense four times from the Bengals 3 to take control of the game early in the second quarter.
On Thursday, the Bengals offered some wood of their own when they re-upped Maualuga in a "Rey-union," for three more years in a deal that keeps him in Cincinnati through his 30th birthday.
The contract is believed to count about $5 million under the salary cap for about a $5 million average, a nice raise from $3.25. According to overthecap.com, he would become the 20th inside backer to average $5 million per year, right behind the Colts' D'Qwell Jackson's $5.5 million and the Lions' Stephen Tulloch's $5.1 million.
There were reasons with decimal points.
In the four games Maualuga missed, opponents rushed for an average of 145 yards per game. When he played, they went for 106. When Maualuga returned to the lineup for the last seven games, the Bengals allowed just 82 yards per game on the ground.
In the absence of injured WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, Maualuga teamed with Rey to handle the huddle and signals. Burfict's unknown status in the wake of microfracture surgery on his knee is another reason they needed to get a deal with Maualuga before free agency opens unofficially Saturday and officially Tuesday.
And this is why the Bengals covet Maualuga:
"We won't be 31st at the end of the season," Maualuga said back in November during the week he returned, when asked about the Bengals' low NFL rank against the run. "You can't just show up and practice and just to practice and go home. "Things have to change. Like (defensive coordinator Paul Guenther) said, if they're not going to do the things they're asking you to do, then you're not going to play. Hopefully that hits a couple of people and things get changed around here."
As Bengals founder Paul Brown once said, "Football is a tough game played by tough people,' and you can talk about this being a passing league and the devaluation of running backs and all that.
But any defense starts with stopping the run and in the 6-2, 255-pound Maualuga (or 260, give or take a few pounds) the Bengals have a commodity that is becoming rare in the NFL these days. A big, athletic linebacker that plays the run like a brute and drops backs like they've been shot.
They're not growing on trees any more. The college game has made sure of that with its zone reads and spread offenses, forcing D-coordinators to go smaller and quicker. When the Bengals took Maualuga in the second round in 2009, he was one of nine backers that went in the first three rounds and only one weighed less than 240 pounds, future Pro Bowler DeAndre Levy. Of the ten taken five years later, three weighed less than 240 and five less than 250.
"Take a look around," Guenther said Thursday. "You don't see many of those guys. You talk to the coaches around the league and what's available in free agency and his name came up a lot. He's unique and I'm glad to have him back. He really helped us when Tez was out of there. That was a tough time for us. He's a big piece of what we're doing."
And take a look at the 23 inside linebackers against the run, as rated by profootballfocus.com this past season. Maualuga is rated 23rd of 60, but only two of the 22 ahead of him weigh more, the 275-pound Jasper Brinkley of the Vikings and the 270-pound Dont'a Hightower of the Patriots.
Yes, he's been hurt three of the last four seasons (knee, ankle, hamstring) and missed a total of 10 games. And, yes, he plays mainly first and second down.
But he also brings a toughness and pop few inside backers bring.
"They don't make them like him anymore. He's a special player in the run game,' said Bengals linebackers coach Matt Burke last year. "People don't realize the stuff he does in the run game. He thumps more than anyone I've ever seen. He hits linemen, he takes blocks on. I haven't been around linebackers like that. That's a valuable weapon to have."
This is why the Bengals covet Maualuga.
"Rey is a physical force on the field and a great teammate in our locker room," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in a press release. "He's a hard-working, dedicated player who continues to get better. As we have put together playoff teams the last four years, we've said more than once that a huge key is keeping productive players who know our system, and this is another big step in that plan."