“This has been the most personally challenging season for me, but I have a lot of motivation from (special assistant) Hue (Jackson), Marvin (Lewis) and my teammates to just keep pushing,” Burfict said Wednesday as the team began its preparations for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
Burfict’s lack of productivity was unexpected, but it fits right along with the storyline for the Bengals’ linebackers this season. Cincinnati has only played two games with its three starting linebackers on the field together, and opposing offenses seem to be taking advantage of an obvious weakness in the middle of the defense.
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Cincinnati's linebackers have allowed league highs in total yards (1,237) and first downs (63), according to ProFootballFocus.com. The Bengals rank last in the league in total defense, allowing 449.4 yards per game, and run defense (153.6 yards), and they are 31st of 32 teams in pass defense (295.8 yards) and scoring defense (31.2 points per game).
Cleveland, despite its struggles over the years, is another team capable of cashing in on Cincinnati’s bad defense. The Browns bring a running game that ranks fifth in the league behind rookie Nick Chubb (579 yards rushing, five touchdowns), and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield is coming off the best game of his young career after completing 17 of 20 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-16 win over Atlanta two weeks ago before the bye.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said the first task will be stopping the run. Chubb rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons.
“We have to do a better job (stopping the run),” Lewis said. “We have not done a great job this football season, so we’ve got to do a great job of playing gap responsibility, playing sound and tackling. This is a strong runner, a strong lower body and is really well put together. It’s impressive. If you think about it for Georgia to have two guys like that (Chubb and Patriots running back Sony Michel) on the football team is impressive.”
It seems to be getting worse for the Bengals linebackers before it gets any better, though, when it comes to personnel.
Preston Brown, who battled ankle injuries early in the season, missed last week with a knee injury and wound up on injured reserve Tuesday. Brown hadn’t missed a single game in the first four years of his career with Buffalo before coming to his hometown team as a free agent in March.
“He was playing through a lot,” Lewis said. “On Wednesdays it wasn’t pretty, but he would get himself going as the week went on. He was starting to make (progress with the ankle). I don’t know if he was getting used to it or whatever but this thing with the knee is another setback.”
Burfict said he still isn’t 100 percent, either, but said “nobody is 100 percent this late in the season” and “that’s football.”
Some help on the way soon, though. Lewis said Nick Vigil “is getting close” and might return to practice this week. He didn’t practice Wednesday but has been working on the rehab field for two weeks now as he recovers from an MCL strain.
In the first six games of the season before his injury, Vigil had been the first defender to make contact with opposing ball carriers on 18.2 percent of his run-defense snaps, which ranked fourth among linebackers in the NFL.
Lewis said getting Vigil back would be a big deal for the defense whenever it happens.
“The thing I thought really Nick had taken such a huge step forward in was his instinctively, communicatively and so forth, out on the field in running the defense,” Lewis said. “He was doing very well at that. You can’t have too many smart guys on the field, particularly when they can make plays.”
Browns at Bengals, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12, 700, 1530, 95.3, 101.1, 102.7, 104.7