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Rookie summit

Vontaze Burfict

After passing for 322 yards and rushing for 109 yards, respectively, last month against the Bengals, Browns rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson are going to be looking at some significant changes on defense Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when they play the encore at Cleveland Browns Stadium led by a much more unheralded rookie fast making a name.

Vontaze Burfict, the man they call "Tez," who had never played outside backer in his life until that Sunday against the Browns, has emerged as the most productive Bengals free-agent rookie in recent memory as he prepares for his fourth straight start.

There have been other moves. Nate Clements figures to make his third start at safety, a move made in the wake of Cleveland's kids putting up 27 in Cincinnati's 34-27 win at Paul Brown Stadium 26 days ago. Left end Carlos Dunlap, the team's best pass rusher, didn't play, and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was still trying to get back in football shape after an injured knee wiped out his preseason.

And then there is the 6-1, 245-pound Burfict, a middle backer by trade who has been wound up like a top ever since starting WILL linebacker Thomas Howard was lost for the season with a knee injury 72 hours before the Cleveland game.

Since being shoved onto the field for 22 snaps against the Browns at WILL, Burfict has racked up 29 tackles over the next three games in his first three starts on the coaches' charts while the Bengals numbers against the run have steadily improved. When the Bengals stoned the Dolphins on less than two yards per their 35 carries last week, Burfict was the only member of the front seven to play all 66 snaps.

Burfict and linebackers coach Paul Guenther both had to smile this Thursday when asked about the Thursday before the last Browns game.

That was the day Howard tore his ACL on an innocuous blitz in practice and Burfict took a phone call from Guenther at 8 p.m. asking him to come back to the building. For the next two days Burfict took a crash course on outside linebacker play, but this has been a much different week.

"He's getting settled. He's getting more comfortable. He's had three full weeks of practice. He does everything I ask and he's playing more and more as you saw last week," Guenther said after a less dramatic Thursday practice. "The thing about him is that he studies and prepares away from the building."

Burfict might not be spending this Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the PBS gym studying chairs lined up in formations like he did before he played the Browns last month, but he's still got a nightly studying routine down pat. While most watch TV nowadays fast-forwarding commercials into irrelevance, Burfict old-schools it. He hits the mute button. Then he'll grab his playbook and shuffle through the iPad while jotting notes down on a pad in making defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer proud.

"Zimmer does a lot of film during the week and tells us what to expect," Burfict said. "My first game at Will, I wasn't sure what to do, but being with Zimmer, he will get you ready. Knowing what they do on first-and-10, second-and-10 … ."

Burfict has learned quickly enough that he's now playing all three downs like Howard did. Guenther makes sure his backers are experts on one form of defense, such as first and second down runs, two tight ends, or third down from two to four yards, or third down five to seven yards. Burfict's expertise is passes and runs out of three-receiver sets, which shows how much faith the Bengals have in the instincts of an old Mike backer in coverage.

"I'm getting more comfortable in the WILL. It's just a matter of communicating with the other backers," Burfict said. "I think the communication is better and I think we're better. It's just being more comfortable with each other."

You don't need an iPad to know why the Bengals have allowed a running back one run longer than nine yards in the last two games.

"All 11 hats to the ball," Burfict said. "And fill where we're supposed to fill. If the run comes to me, bounce and spill (inside)."

Like when the Bengals stopped the Dolphins on third-and-one and fourth-and-one. After Clements and Maualuga took out running back David Thomas on third down, Burfict and safety Reggie Nelson stuffed 258-pound fullback Jorvorskie Lane.

"We had seen on tape they liked to go to the fullback dive on fourth down," Burfict said. "Reggie came in from the side and got his legs and I got him up top."

And you don't need a sheet with the snap counts to realize Burfict is playing more.

"He makes plays," Clements said. "It doesn't matter if you're a rookie. The key is productivity."

The Bengals know they need that this week. Burfict is one of the four tacklers Richardson ran through inside the 10-yard line to finish off his 23-yard touchdown catch last month.

"All 11 hats to the ball. Swarm. He's a strong back," Burfict said. "He doesn't have the best speed, but he's very strong, very elusive, and he comes with the hammer."

The Bengals are hoping they've got their own hammer this time in Burfict.

"He's been a pleasant surprise," said Guenther, who didn't have to look around for a hammer this week.

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