The Cincinnati Bengals aren’t sure exactly what they can get out of Vontaze Burfict yet, but one thing is certain: He will make an impact.
Burfict is coming off a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, and he was limited in the preseason because of an ankle injury that prevented him from appearing in any games.
Head coach Marvin Lewis said he isn’t sure exactly where Burfict is physically because he was not able to have any contact with the seventh-year linebacker during the suspension, and he needs to see how the rest of this week goes before determining his availability.
However, Burfict was in pads and participating in the portion of practice open to media Wednesday, and it’s well-documented the energy he brings the team on and off the field. That can only help as the Bengals (3-1) prepare to host the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins (3-1) on Sunday.
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“It’s going to be huge,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “You know what he brings to the football club. Right now we’re standing at 3-1 and we’re looking to get better and we feel we can do some things better. He’s going to step right in and fill some of those voids.”
The Bengals have struggled on defense early this season, especially the past two weeks while allowing 33.5 points per game in a loss to Carolina and win against Atlanta.
They rank 23rd in scoring defense overall (28.3 ppg) and 29th in yards allowed (419.3) but are the league’s worst defense on third down, as opponents have converted on 57 percent of their attempts against Cincinnati. Teammates believe Burfict can help correct those issues that seem to continue week after week.
“Just his presence (helps),” Dunlap said. “The tenacity he brings to the game, his mind, seeing things, understanding of the football game and how teams like to attack you and just speed up the adjustments and maybe communicating with some of the younger players, there are all kind of things a veteran like him who has the mind he has can bring to a football club.”
“With those thi»ngs and honing in on the things that we already want to work on as a defense, collectively, adding him to the mix should turn that tide,” Dunlap added. “We’ve got a lot of opportunity there to use his mind on third down, understanding the concepts and stuff there. That alone, just having a great football player, not that the other guys have done a horrible job, other teams were just converting plays.”
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Burfict was not available to speak to media Wednesday.
Linebacker Preston Brown, who signed with the Bengals as a free agent in March, has spent limited time with Burfict but got enough of a sense for his abilities to know he can be a game changer. The two sit in the locker room next to one another, and Brown has looked forward to a chance to play next to Burfict since he joined the team.
“It means everything to have Tez back,” Brown said. “He’s a guy who’s going to out there and give everything he’s got. If he gets tired he’s going to go out and come back in and give everything he’s got so it’s going to be fun to see.”
Lewis tried to temper the notion that Burfict can step right in and fix the defense’s problems, saying Burfict “is just one player,” but part of that might be from concerns Burfict may not be ready. He took a sarcastic tone when noting that he is sure Burfict “checked all those boxes off and took care of all his therapy that was set up for him.”
Burfict also hasn’t had a chance to develop much of a relationship with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, which Lewis said was something that helped him in the past while playing under Paul Guenther, who started out as Burfict’s linebackers coach.
However, Lewis can’t downplay Burfict’s playmaking ability and contributions on the field. When asked what makes Burfict so special, Lewis said it’s his “suddenness.”
“I think it’s very common among the best linebackers that have played the game,” Lewis said. “They all have that suddenness and lower body. It’s not necessarily about foot speed but it’s about their ability to be sudden on their keys. Their eyes have to work correctly in their keys and their reads and the suddenness they come with and the way their hips can explode.
“He understands and sees it, and it’s his composition and ability to bend his knees and go. We watched it already in 20 minutes of walkthrough.”
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick believes the Bengals would be 4-0 right now if Burfict had been on the field for the Carolina game, one in which they allowed 230 yards rushing and lost 31-21. He said the defense will be better with Burfict.
“He just brings something different,” Kirkpatrick said. “He’s a veteran guy. He’s a guy that’s known out there on the field. And guys have to worry about him. I definitely feel that with the instincts he brings to the game, he’s always one step ahead. … He’s one of the leaders of this team, and we welcome him back.”
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