Robert Geathers calls Vontaze Burfict "the heartbeat,' of the Bengals defense.
After flying around the Paul Brown Stadium turf on an obscure Wednesday in June with the mojo of Dec. 28 in Pittsburgh, Vontaze Burfict felt a little tightness Thursday and did what the coaches told him to do.
He tapped his helmet and watched most of the last practice of mandatory minicamp. "One of those days," the Pro Bowl linebacker says, and while the NFL's defending third-ranked defense still smoldered with intensity, the Burfict burn cooled.
"He's what you want as the heartbeat of the defense," says Robert Geathers. "Everybody out there has their own energy, but we kind of feed off him a little bit. When it gets a little tough and you start looking around, you can look at that guy and you know he's there."
On any given play, Burfict can rough up scatback Giovani Bernard with a shove or get in the face of quarterback Andy Dalton with a salutation. He'll even give offensive coordinator Hue Jackson some feedback as the trash compactor amps up toward training camp.
"I feel like the defense feeds off me," Burfict says. "If I bring my energy, if I'm out there seeing red dots and stuff, I think they'll follow my lead. Whatever I do, I feel like they'll follow me. If I'm on fire, they'll realize that."
Then there was the one-on-one drill when Burfict stepped in front of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis for an interception.
"I threw the ball at Ben,' Burfict admits. "It's about competing and having fun."
Or, as Dalton says, "He doesn't like to lose."
And is Burfict ever having fun this spring.
"I love Gio. I love his competitive nature," Burfict says. "It's like Giant vs. Mini Me. He has the same attitude I have. He wants to score, he wants to get the ball. I don't want him to score, I don't want him to get the ball. We're always going to compete.
"I love going with Andy. This year Andy is feeling more comfortable, more confident in the pocket," Burfict says. "He's also talking (bleep) now. I don't know if Hue is rubbing off on him or what it is. I love it."
And they love Burfict. He gives a team that has always seemed to need swag in the NFL's baddest division plenty of swagger. As new linebackers coach Matt Burke says, "It's infectious. You don't want to take the stinger away from the kid. That's what makes him special."
The kid doesn't turn 24 until the bye week and he's already led the league in tackles while spitting out the playbook verbatim. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has already told him he'll be coaching for him one day. Burfict knows the only way to reach one of his goals, NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is to reach another one his goals.
The Super Bowl.
"He prepares from week to week," says Geathers, the defensive lineman who has played the most Bengals games of anyone on the roster. "One of the things that makes him special is his natural instincts and his knowledge of football. When you've got both, it's hard to be stopped."
Like Wednesday. The way defensive tackle Domata Peko recalls it, Burfict caught whiff of a play off the formation and yelled, "Four quick outs."
"And he was right," Peko says. "That's what you need." Burfict charges along even in a practice in shorts. A June practice might as well be that day in San Diego last December that began with head coach Marvin Lewis shaking his head at Burfict's wounded ankle in pregame and ended with a Bengals' win and Burfict's 13 tackles
For Burfict, it all goes hand in hand.
"At the end of the year I didn't know what else I needed to try to do and win that award (NFL Defensive Player of the Year.) That's the thing I'm going to try to make steps to. It all comes back around…I've got to get my team to the Super Bowl. We've got to win games."
Burfict doles out the credit like he does the defensive signals. Teammates like Peko and Geno Atkins and Rey Maualuga and Reggie Nelson and Adam Jones and coaches like Lewis and Guenther. Cornerback Terence Newman says the man that calls the signals and sets the players can call it his defense, nodding at Burfict.
"I wouldn't say that. We have so many leaders on our team," Burfict says. "Reggie Nelson in the back end. (Newman) and Adam on the corners. Me and Rey at linebacker, Geno and Peko for the line. We have leaders across the board. We all talk it out and make sure we get on the same page."
But Burfict says he is looking to take more of a high profile role. With limits.
"Yeah I do, but I don't want to put too much stress on myself to go out there and do the things I didn't do last year," Burfict says. "I want to go into year the same way I did last year. Minimize the mistakes. I feel like the defense is on my back, but at the end of day I don't want to put too much pressure on myself."
It seems like he is having too much fun to feel the pressure. Burke says he even goes through the position drills trying to win.
"One of the misperceptions about him is that people don't realize how smart he is," Burke says. "He's a really, really smart football player. Really good in situations. And when we're in red zone or third down, he's going for the stop."
It turns out he can't help it.
"I get so caught up in the moment I forget its practice. Let's go," Burfict says. "I don't want a guy to catch it on me, I don't want them to score while I'm in there. I think that attitude rubs off on the defense."
For Burfict, it is December in June. For everything but hitting.
"He understands no one has pads on," Dalton says. "Thankfully."