Bengals' Rivers on the rebound

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

CINCINNATI -- Second-year linebacker Keith Rivers isn't worried about getting revenge on a certain member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Cincinnati Bengals' 2008 first-round pick is more concerned about making sure he develops into one of the top linebackers in the AFC North this season.

The Bengals have high hopes for Rivers. Early last season he was challenging for defensive rookie-of-the-year honors with a Cincinnati unit that finished No. 12 in 2008. But a crushing block by Steelers receiver Hines Ward broke Rivers' jaw in Week 7 and ended his rookie campaign prematurely.

The rival Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XLIII while Rivers spent seven weeks last winter unable to eat most solid foods because his mouth was wired shut.

It was not the type of NFL welcome Rivers had anticipated.

"It's not a great feeling, but you got to move on and learn from it," said Rivers, whose injury prompted a rule change prohibiting helmet-to-helmet contact on blindside blocks. "In actuality it's kind of negative energy [to think about it]. I just got to focus on me getting better and becoming a better player. I can't focus on me being hurt and feeling sorry for myself or getting mad."

Rivers also had offseason surgery to clean up his ankle and says he's 100 percent healthy. His inability to eat solid foods caused him to lose approximately 20 pounds, and Rivers said the biggest challenge was to make sure the weight returned in the proper areas, particularly the muscles in the upper body.

During an interview this week, a teammate walked by and jokingly mentioned how skinny Rivers looked in the face and shoulders after the injury. In terms of weight distribution, Rivers wants to have everything completely settled by the start of training camp so he can focus strictly on football.

"This last month is going to be a big deal," Rivers said.

Meanwhile, Rivers is making a great impression on his coaches. The former USC star entered the 2008 draft as one of the most pro-ready players and lived up to that billing by starting for the Bengals in Week 1. He had 37 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble in only six games. (Rivers was injured in the first defensive series against Pittsburgh.)

Projecting those numbers over 16 games, Rivers was on pace for about 98 tackles and three interceptions.

"He's got his goals in terms of helping this defense," Bengals linebacker coach Jeff FitzGerald said. "He felt bad about being out last year, and he felt bad because he felt like he was letting his teammates down by having that injury. It's not that he had any control over it, but that's how he felt."

Despite the broken jaw, Rivers continued to attend every meeting with his team. Instead of practicing and playing, he was taking mental reps in the film room in preparation for this season.

The extra work helped Rivers hit the ground running with the Bengals this offseason.

"He's really a guy who is smart enough to understand what he's supposed to do and how he's supposed to get it done," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

Playing in a division with the likes of the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis, who is a future Hall of Famer, and current NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's very easy to get lost in the AFC North shuffle of quality linebackers. But Rivers says it's going to be his job to "make big plays on the big stage when you're playing against those guys" in the division.

This is expected to be a big year for the defense, Rivers and the Bengals as a whole. Sitting on the sidelines for more than half of his rookie season also gave Rivers a lot of time to build anticipation for this year.

"That added a lot of drive to what he does, not that he needed that much more," FitzGerald said. "But it added to the flame that already burns in his belly and maybe made it a little hotter."