Let's see, the over-under on how many snaps WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict plays Sunday (1 p.m. on Cincinnati's Channel 12; click here for tickets) in his first game of the season against the Dolphins at Paul Brown Stadium?
He didn't try a guess before Friday's walk through. In fact, he said he doesn't know if he'll play and head coach Marvin Lewis said it's a game-time call. But Lewis' inactive sheet just got more complicated Friday when running back Giovani Bernard (knee) and wide receiver John Ross (groin) were ruled out for Sunday. Running back Joe Mixon, ruled full go for the first time Friday, is expected to play but since Sunday marks just 22 days off arthroscopic knee surgery Lewis indicated his conditioning isn't capable of a full load against the Dolphins.
Even with Bernard and Ross down, it would seem to be an unfortunately fairly easy move to take Burfict off roster-exempt status. He'll probably end up trading places with tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle) when they put Eifert on season-ending injured reserve.
But there are a bevy of questions for the inactive sheet, starting with how many running backs he'll play. Lewis gambled the last two weeks and went with two running backs. But given Mixon isn't just easing back, that may mean they have to activate Thomas Rawls for the first time and put him with Mixon and rookie Mark Walton. Wide receiver Alex Erickson has served as the third back and Lewis said Friday he's got as many as five running backs even if that's not their first position. Whether that means rookie wide receiver Auden Tate is active for the first time in his career is anyone's guess.
A report on Friday had Bernard missing two to four weeks with a knee sprain, so remember when some people were questioning the Walton pick in the fourth round back in April? And others were saying there would be a point some time during the season you'd be glad they did it? Here's that point, a little earlier than expected.
With Burfict expected to be active, the assumption is one of the other linebackers figures to be inactive and the leading candidate is rookie Malik Jefferson after he was responsible for last Sunday's blocked punt in Atlanta.
Burfict, Lewis and the Bengals have been here before. It's the fourth straight year he's made his return early in the season after an injury (2015 in Pittsburgh), an NFL suspension for violating player safety rules (2016 against these Dolphins at PBS and last year in Cleveland) and a league suspension for violating the league's PEDs policy this year. He's played 48 percent, 75.5 percent and 80 percent of the snaps in those first games back and the Bengals are 3-0 and haven't allowed more than ten points.
"When you get out there you want to be competitive," Burfict said. "You don't want to come out every play, but you want to come out sometimes and be fresh for the next play. Hardy (Nickerson) and Jordan (Evans) are also great back-ups, so there's a chance for me to go out a couple of plays and come back in."
But this is the first time he's returning to a new defense. What made his captaincy role in the scheme and his ability to play right away so intriguing is that he was one mind with defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, not only his DC for four years but his position coach during Burfict's first two years in the league. And he basically only has this week of practice under new DC Teryl Austin since he missed most of training camp with a foot injury.
"Football is football. The playbook is the playbook. Your man is your man," Burfict said. "It's similar but very different on defense. Especially play calls that I would expect Paulie to call. T.A., it's obviously two different minds. I just have to get used to his calling. And understand what he's calling for. That's what I knew Paulie G. for. I knew why he was calling the plays and understanding what he's expecting. So I just have to get used to T.A. and why he's calling things and stuff like that. It's going to happen, just give me a couple of games."
Burfict looks to be in good shape, but it's always been a bit of a contention and when he was asked what he did for the last four weeks he appeared miffed.
"Worked out. Y'all act like I didn't work out. I don't know why y'all keep asking me, Was he in condition? It's my job, so of course I'm going to come in condition."
Still, he seemed to indicate conditioning is a factor why he won't be wearing the defense's headset. SAM backer Nick Vigil, who has played all 304 snaps, has been wearing it of late and Burfict says he doesn't want it.
"I'll pass that along," said Burfict, who said he thinks middle linebacker Preston Brown is going to wear it. "I just want to focus on playing football. They've been playing more games than me, so they're in a little bit more condition, so it's better for them to do it rather than me … Preston is a great linebacker. He knows the game as well … Two minds are better than one."
Burfict is looking to help a defense under siege. The Bengals are dead last in third-down percentage and aren't much better elsewhere. They're fourth lowest in yards allowed and fifth lowest in passing yards.
"Every game I've played in the NFL, it's always two or three plays. You can't be perfect the whole game," Burfict said. "I feel like last year when we messed up two or three plays they didn't score. This year it seems like they're scoring. We just have to fix the little minor errors."