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Taking notice


Emmanuel Lamur

From fantasy football to film, the defensive line is hailed as the best in the game.

The secondary has more skins on the wall than a country club.

But you won't hear much about the Cincinnati linebackers unless you spend a few days eavesdropping in the Paul Brown Stadium environs on men watching them daily. And it won't be long before you realize the Bengals think this group has the potential to take the defense deep beyond the No. 6 ranking they're defending.

It starts with two second-year specimens that run around on passing downs in Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur. It hangs with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, a second-round pick in 2009 that head coach Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer battled to keep in free agency. It is topped off by James Harrison, already an NFL icon learning a new but old position at SAM backer on the outside.

Over here is Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth: "I can't think of another 4-3 defense where you say they have three better looking guys than what we have. Then you have Lamur, as athletic as he is. You almost have a guy built for all situations. You've got a guy like James you put on the ball; he's done that for years. You've got Burfict who can flow and is a tackling machine. You've got Rey who can fill and a guy like Lamur that can cover."

Now here comes running backs coach Hue Jackson, the former Raiders head coach and current Bengals running backs coach, approaching Lamur. Lamur, the 6-4 gazelle-ish former Kansas State freshman safety, pops eyeballs every day. That will happen when you run 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash and show up with 11 more pounds than last year at 241.

"You're running like a scalded dog," Jackson says. "I love this guy. I love speed. I watch this guy every day. Because he can run, hit and he loves to play the game."

Over here is cornerback Terence Newman, a two-time Pro Bowler in the NFC with the Cowboys that has seen the NFL's last decade.

"From front to back, we've got as many quality players as anybody in the league," Newman says of his defense. "The linebacking corps is phenomenal. They make plays in the passing game and the running game. The crazy part is we've got guys that are big and can run. They can hit and they cover. When you talk football, they're all smart as hell, too. You listen to ask them ask questions and when Zim asks questions, they rattle off the answers like nothing. It's impressive."

This is why Newman covets Burfict, his locker mate.

"He doesn't want to stay put," Newman says. "If he thinks he had a bad practice, he's always asking me what he could have done better."

And standing on the field at the end of practice Wednesday is head coach Marvin Lewis. There is no one alive who knows more about developing and coaching linebackers in the AFC Central and North of the last 22 seasons. From Burfict to Greg Lloyd. And in between he coached that generation's best linebacker in Ray Lewis.

"They've got so much upside," Lewis says. "They're not only physically good. They're very good mentally. Very, very good that way."

When Lewis first arrived in Cincinnati 11 seasons ago, he wanted to surround his front four with speedy backers that could also counter the 3-4 Steelers and Ravens on special teams. But the 225-pound Khalid Abdullahs, Caleb Millers and Landon Johnsons of the world just never worked out in the NFL's most physical division. God love them, they played hard but those days are long gone looking at Lamur and the 6-1, 255-pound Burfict.

"They look like NFL linebackers. You want guys 6-2 and 240-some pounds," Lewis says. "We had some good football players, but their bodies never matured as much as you would have hoped."

Which is why the Bengals signed Lamur last year after the draft. He was a 228 or so pound ex-safety, but he has a bigger frame than that. He proved it when he came back this year after living with his family in West Palm Beach, Fla., and got beefed up by his mother's recipes from her native Haiti.

Poulet à L'haïtienne, or Haitian chicken, is his favorite.

"I just ate healthier being with my family every day," Lamur says. "A lot of greens. A lot of rice and beans."

Now Newman is calling Lamur "kind of a freak," and when linebackers coach Paul Guenther watches his film of Burfict and Lamur in the nickel package, he is struck by the speed.

"You kind of say, 'Zoom,' " says Guenther, who is also using Lamur as a backup at both SAM and WILL in the base defense as well as starting him in the nickel.

Lamur's partner in the nickel, Burfict, who fittingly wears 55, says they're playing fast for a reason.

"E-man and I know the playbook like the back of our hands," Burfict says. "Plus Guenther has been coaching us since we were yay high. We've been working together since rookie minicamp. When he asks a question, we're the first two guys that answer it."

That's about the only question Burfict is answering these days after a crushing rookie year under the microscope. America loved his story last season, rubbernecking that one long, car wreck out of the first round to free agency.

But when his 174 tackles proved he could play, Burfict is now not nearly as interesting as Harrison or franchise player Michael Johnson, or two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, or even the mystery safety next to Reggie Nelson.

"Put me back a little bit. I like being under the radar," Burfict says. "Don't worry about me. Don't worry about anything."

So now Harrison is getting the microphones and Lewis a little bit, too. There is a school of thought that Harrison doesn't fit here as a lifelong 3-4 outside backer in his first life as Dick LeBeau's top rusher off the edge with the Steelers.

But, remember, Lewis studied under LeBeau 20 years ago in Pittsburgh.

"The (Pittsburgh) defense there was constructed very similar to the defense here. Many of the philosophies are exactly the same," Lewis said. "The terminology, most of it is exactly the same. So all the innards of the things that we do, or the principles, were built upon the same foundation. So it's an easy thing. Most of it. And the things that aren't, he's been able to handle. He'll be asked to do some different things than he was there in certain situations, but everything that we're asking him to do he was asked to do in his previous stop as well."

But forget all that. Forget the football. Guenther loves the guy because he's in the weight room at 6 a.m. every day.

"First guy in the building every day," Guenther says. "So that's easy for me. I just point to him and tell my guys, 'He's been in the league 12 years, he's 35 years old. That's how he's done it.' "

Burfict gives Harrison a hard time about that.

"Six a.m.," he says. "That's only because he can't sleep."

So it's obvious.

Don't sleep on these linebackers.

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