Vontaze Burfict and the rest of the Cincinnati Bengals reported for training camp Wednesday, but it remains to be seen how often the linebacker will be on the field during the next six weeks.
For the third year in a row, Burfict will be suspended for the beginning of the regular season. This year it’s a four-game ban for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
That means once again head coach Marvin Lewis has to decide how much to use Burfict in practices and preseason games.
“Unfortunately we’re probably too experienced at it,” referencing the three-game suspension (shorted from five on appeal) Burfict served to start 2017 for an illegal hit on Kansas City fullback Anthony Sherman in the second preseason game and the first three games of 2016 for repeated violations of the league’s player safety rules, culminating with his hit on Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown in the 2015 AFC wild-card game.
The four-game suspension Burfict will serve this year begins Monday, Sept. 3, meaning he is eligible to participate fully in all practices and preseason games prior to then.
The issue for Lewis and the rest of the staff is how many reps they give Burfict as opposed to the other linebackers who will be on the field for the first four games at Indianapolis, vs. Baltimore, at Carolina and at Atlanta.
“With him (out), as I’ve said in the past, there has to become an identity with the other guys because Vontaze, you’re not going to be there,” Lewis said. “So these guys, Preston (Brown) and so forth, they’ve got become the identity of the football team. That’s so important for Preston to go ahead and ascend and to continue to grow. He’s given Vontaze his space, but now he’s going to have to go and take over.”
Brown, who signed as a free agent in the offseason after four years in Buffalo, likely will play the same amount of snaps with Burfict out as he does once Burfict returns. But Brown is going to have to assume more of the leadership role those first four weeks in addition to wearing the green-stickered helmet wired to the coaches.
“We have to have the other guys assume the leadership, the communication, everything that way,” Lewis said. “He’s such a dominant personality that we have to almost stifle him in order to do that.”
The most likely candidate to start at Bufict’s weakside spot the first four weeks is second-year linebacker Jordan Evans. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said playing without Burfict due to suspension will be no different than losing him to injury, which is something football team’s plan for and deal with all the time.
“It is what it is,” said Austin. “It’s things you go through during the course of a season. You’re going to lose guys who are going to be down for a couple of weeks and are going to be hurt and we move on.
“What we want to do is make sure we train all of our guys so that our next guy has to step and up fill that void and do a great job, and whoever is in there we expect them to do a great job,” he continued. “Then when we get Vontaze back, we’ll from go there. We have to play. They’re not going to wait for us. We have to adapt and go.”
The need to get the other players ready and the desire to keep Burfict from getting injured in a meaningless exhibition game would seem to point toward him not playing in the preseason, as was the case in 2016.
Lewis didn’t want to discuss whether Burfict would play in the preseason this year, but he did say there could be an advantage to getting the linebacker some live reps.
“The only benefit is just football conditioning and just playing football,” Lewis said. “If you take that away totally, now you’ve gone how many months without really playing football. The one thing to his credit, he’s been able to come back into playing football as though he’s been playing football, for whatever snaps we give him when he comes back.
Burfict played 36 snaps (48 percent) with five tackles in his first game back in 2015 with five tackles at Pittsburgh; 34 snaps (76 percent) with three snaps in his debut in 2016 – and on a short week in a Thursday night game against Miami; and 52 snaps (80 percent) with six tackles in his first game last year.
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“If we say it’s going to be 20 (snaps), then he ends up playing 40,” Lewis said. “If we say it’s going to be 30, he plays 50 because he won’t come out once he’s in there. And then all he’ll do is afterward tell you guys (reporters) how he was so winded and we made him play too much.
“But he’s the one who won’t come off the field,” Lewis continued. “But he has done a good job of getting himself in condition and being read to make the transition back into playing.”