AFC North: Vontaze Burfict

CINCINNATI -- On one hand, the Cincinnati Bengals have to expect that a healthy Vontaze Burfict will be back to playing like the intimidating, aggressive tackler he was for most of his first three seasons.

On the other, they also have to prepare for the possibility that he won't. They have to go into the year understanding that Burfict may not be his old self in Week 1 as he continues to rehab from microfracture surgery on his left knee. Heck, they have to know he may not even play in a couple of early-season games.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe Bengals can't count on having a healthy Vontaze Burfict to begin the season.

It's quite the juggling act of game plans and expectations.

"We've got to feel positive about what's going on with him," coach Marvin Lewis said at the owners meetings in Phoenix this week. "[But] we can't approach the season with him. We just have to go forward, and when he shows up and does his thing then we're better."

See? It's a juggling act of emotions.

But this is where the Bengals are as they wait for Burfict to overcome one of the scariest surgeries in sports. For Burfict and the Bengals, this offseason will be all about patience.

In the middle of January, not long after the Bengals' playoff run ended with what's become a customary first-round exit, Burfict underwent microfracture surgery.

He was injured in Week 8 last season when he took a hard shot to the knee as he chased a Baltimore Ravens running back. After several plays off, a hobbled Burfict returned, wrapping up multiple ball carriers at the end of a dramatic early-game goal-line stand that kept the Ravens off the scoreboard. He finished the eventual win with seven tackles.

But afterward the team discovered he had issues with cartilage in the knee. He required surgery to clean it up before he could play again. A simple procedure, most players typically come back from knee scopes within three weeks.

Despite a comeback attempt, he never made it off the rehab fields. By Week 15 he was officially placed on injured reserve with an injury that was worse than originally thought.

Microfracture surgeries have their post-operative success stories. But they've also ended careers. There's very little in between. It's that uncertainty about what to expect once an athlete completes rehab that creates worry, and juggling acts like one the Bengals currently have.

Burfict's patience will be tested this spring and summer as he slowly does more and more to strengthen his leg. It's a tedious rehab process, and if he tries to speed it up, it could lead to disastrous results when he officially steps back onto the field.

The hope is he'll be ready for training camp. But depending upon how well his body and mind have settled back, there is a chance that return could be delayed. That's why Lewis said the Bengals can't pencil Burfict in at weakside linebacker.

Some staff members, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and linebackers coach Matt Burke among them, have traveled to California to visit Burfict while the new dad goes through the early stages of rehab.

"It's a situation where he's got to really feel great with the people he's working with," Lewis said. "We've tried to do a great job of incorporating us and them. He knows the value he brings our team, so we wanted to make sure that everybody's been checking on him personally."

video
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Hawk couldn't care less about where in the linebacker rotation the Cincinnati Bengals put him.

He could be lined up in the middle or outside. It doesn't matter. Wherever he goes, he has just one focus: the player running with the football.

"We're all trying to tackle the guy with the ball. That's it," the newest Bengal said Wednesday. "I don't get caught up in positions. They are different, you have different responsibilities and different setups, but a 'backer's a 'backer. Football's football. I don't want to complicate it."

Sounds simple enough. Remember, this is a player who has spent nine years in the NFL and at 31 is considered "old." If the Green Bay Packers' most prolific tackling linebacker has been approaching football this way his entire career, why change now?

Hawk
Hawk, speaking inside only the second NFL locker room that he'll soon call come, was asked about the different places he's lined up on defense because of concerns about how he'll adjust from Green Bay's 3-4 scheme to the 4-3 the Bengals run under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. A noted inside linebacker, he could play the middle, or "Mike" linebacker spot for the Bengals. That would involve moving Rey Maualuga over to the "Will" outside linebacker spot.

There's also a chance Hawk could play the "Sam" outside linebacker position, giving the Bengals a boost to that position. Emmanuel Lamur, recently tendered at the second-round restricted-free-agent level, has been Cincinnati's "Sam," but he's more of a true cover linebacker instead of one who specializes in playing the run. It's possible he and Hawk would be interchangeable, alternating playing passing and rushing downs, depending upon personnel matchups.

Hawk also could play the "Will" position if Vontaze Burfict doesn't come back as hoped from his January microfracture knee surgery. At this point, virtually any scenario is on the table.

Hawk, a native of Kettering, Ohio, played every linebacker position at Ohio State and did the same at times in Green Bay. His first three seasons also were spent in a 4-3 base scheme before the Packers switched to defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 base setup in 2009.

One reason Hawk believes his two years in Cincinnati -- worth $3.25 million total -- will work out well is because of his new coordinator. All it took was a meal during his visit last weekend to see why.

"He has his specific plan of what he wants to do, and he wants his guys to execute it, be violent and go out and become great at what they do, and not try to overcomplicate it and not try to get guys overthinking, worried about assignments," Hawk said of Guenther.

"That's a huge thing I noticed when I went to dinner with him Sunday night. We're drawing up stuff on the table and talking about coverages and blitzes and stuff. It got me excited."

Something else that got Hawk excited and convinced Cincinnati would be the perfect free-agency landing spot was the fact that he'd get to play alongside Maualuga and Burfict. He's been tracking both of their careers from afar, and even developed a friendship with Maualuga through Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who played at USC with Maualuga.

"When it comes to football, are you physical and do you make plays?" Hawk said. "Those guys do it."

Wherever he fits in their rotation, the Bengals are banking on Hawk to play physically and make a few plays, too.
video
CINCINNATI -- The first thought by Cincinnati Bengals' fans upon hearing that A.J. Hawk was signing with their team was probably one of disbelief.

Did the Bengals really sign a player on the first day of free agency?

Followed by: "I hope he's not James Harrison." (There probably was a third thought about Vontaze Burfict. We'll get to that later.)

You'll recall two offseasons ago the Bengals added an up-in-age Harrison just after he was cut at the end of his first tour of duty with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He ended up spending only one year in Cincinnati, and it was arguably the worst of his career. This past season, in a return to Pittsburgh, the 36-year-old had 15 more tackles and 3.5 more sacks than he did during his brief Bengals stay.

This March, Hawk is the aging veteran whose career the Bengals are trying to salvage. They agreed with him on a contract Tuesday, ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported about two hours into the start of the new league year.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Hawk
AP photo/Jim MahoneyThe Bengals are hoping A.J. Hawk can bring his winning experience to their locker room.
With a bit of uncertainty at linebacker, the Bengals need Hawk to provide depth as well as a much-needed spark. Harrison was unable to do the latter.

Late last month Hawk was released by the Green Bay Packers after his injury-affected ninth season with the team. While he appeared in every game the Packers played in 2014, ankle issues slowed him. By the end of the year, his playing time in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme had dramatically decreased. After averaging about 65 snaps in the first 11 games of the season, he didn't see more than 31 snaps in any one of the final seven games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He didn't even play 20 snaps in four of the final seven games.

Immediately after the Packers were eliminated by Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, Hawk had surgery to clear bone spurs from his ankle.

Which begs the question: Can the Bengals win with the battered vet?

They sure hope so.

Here's why the Bengals added Hawk. On the one hand, there's the local tie and the reunion with another longtime Bengal. A native of Kettering, Ohio -- about a 45-minute drive north of Cincinnati -- Hawk knows the area well. He also played high school and college ball with Mike Nugent, the kicker the Bengals re-signed earlier this week. Those are reasons enough to believe Hawk ought to feel at home in the Bengals' locker room.

It's a locker room where he'll be viewed as an elder. Only Nugent, Andrew Whitworth, Adam Jones, Eric Winston, Reggie Nelson and (assuming he's re-signed) Jason Campbell are older than Hawk. Unlike them, though, he has a Super Bowl ring.

You can't place enough value on having that experience, particularly for the win-now Bengals. Cincinnati feels that in order to finally advance in the playoffs, it must retain the core pieces it already has, and bring in others who know how to win. Even if his best playing days are behind him, Hawk understands what a team needs in order to get out of the first round of the playoffs.

Just like Harrison.

This brings us back to Burfict. Because the Bengals are unsure about how the Pro Bowler will look when he returns later this year from microfracture surgery, a free-agent insurance policy was needed. Enter, Hawk.

If Burfict can't play the way Cincinnati hopes, the Bengals can move Hawk to the middle linebacker position and shift recently re-signed "Mike" linebacker Rey Maualuga back to the "Will" outside linebacker spot Burfict currently occupies, or go through other linebacker shake ups.

At the very least, Hawk's presence gives the Bengals sorely-needed help in a linebacker rotation that desperately needed it.
Hawk
CINCINNATI -- On the same day one of his former high school and college teammates was expected to sign a contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals, veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk was in the Queen City visiting coaches and other front-office personnel.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Hawk's visit early Monday.

If Hawk ultimately signs with the Bengals, he'll have a reunion with kicker Mike Nugent. Reports late Sunday indicated Nugent will sign a two-year extension. Natives of suburban Dayton, Ohio, Hawk and Nugent played together some 50 miles north of Cincinnati at Centerville High School before also starring at Ohio State.

Hawk has only called one place home since college. Drafted fifth overall in 2006, the inside linebacker spent the last nine seasons with the Green Bay Packers before he was cut two weeks ago. Since he was released, he could sign Monday if he and the Bengals reached an agreement that quickly.

One of the Bengals' focuses from a personnel standpoint this offseason has involved strengthening their depth chart at linebacker. Injuries ravaged the unit in 2014, forcing the Bengals to thrust a pair of inexperienced linebackers into some of the season's more pivotal games. At Indianapolis in the middle of the season, reserve Vincent Rey led a linebacker group that included rookie Marquis Flowers and former undrafted free agent Jayson DiManche, who was getting some of the first defensive snaps of his career.

It's likely the Bengals will draft a linebacker, in addition to trying to sign one in free agency, like Hawk. They already kept Rey Maualuga from hitting free agency, signing the six-year vet to a new deal last week just days before his previous contract expired.

Although injuries have caused Hawk's career to take a bit of a decline the past season or two, he still fits the Bengals' free-agent profile, and could give them solid depth at a position that lacked it.
CINCINNATI -- Count Rey Maualuga among the believers.

While some around the Cincinnati Bengals are concerned about how well linebacker Vontaze Burfict will respond this offseason to microfracture surgery on his left knee, his teammate and fellow linebacker expects the recovery to go well.

Burfict
"I know Tez. He's a fighter. He'll come back," Maualuga said Friday following a news conference regarding the three-year contract extension he signed Thursday.

Maualuga was asked about Burfict because the Bengals' interest in re-signing him appears to have stemmed, in part, from the fact nobody knows yet what to expect.

Microfracture surgery is regarded as one of the most career-threatening procedures athletes can endure, with patience and persistence a necessary virtue.

"He's a tough guy," Maualuga said. "With the healing process, that's going to take some time. But with the spring and OTAs (organized team activities) and all of that, it's a chance for guys to get better. It's a chance for coaches to see what guys can be put in that role and look comfortable in it. We don't have to worry. We have time to find the right guys to take on that role if he doesn't come back in time."

Maualuga said he was optimistic the same old Burfict would be running around when training camp begins in July and August.

For now, that's the timeline the Bengals are hoping for. Head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther were told Burfict's slow recovery process ought to have him back in time for the start of camp. They likely will take it easy with him when he first gets on the field, but the hope is that when he's 100 percent, he will not have lost the explosiveness and burst that made him a virtual wrecking ball in the middle of the defense during the first two of his three seasons in stripes.

His 2014 season was almost completely derailed because of injuries, but Burfict, led the Bengals in tackles in 2012 and 2013. A former undrafted free agent, Burfict made the Pro Bowl following his second season before signing a contract extension that is scheduled to pay him about $20 million through 2017. He's still just 24 years old.

"Vontaze is a big reason for this linebacker group to be what we need it to be," Maualuga said. "With his presence and his understanding of the game, we're a lot more comfortable. If he's not out there, it's like we're playing not so much a catch-up game, but it's like that overall mindset is off for us. It changes a little bit."

Part of the reason Maualuga anticipates Burfict to make an adequate return is because he knows what drives him.

"Doctors are going to say what they want to say: 'This guy will come back in six months' or whatever," Maualuga said. "No, it's on the player. Just like my hamstring the first time [last season]. They said, 'Oh, it's going to be 6-9 weeks.' Well, I came back in four. It's all about how bad you want it and how fast you can come back."

Anyone who has spent time around Burfict knows there really is no questioning how much he wants to play at a high level again.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL combine enters its third day at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Thursday, and I'm here covering the event from a Cincinnati Bengals perspective.

This week we've looked three key areas the Bengals will want to address during this draft process. There are others, and that's why these next few days are so important to helping determine the direction the franchise goes. At the start of each day, we will provide a quick rundown of what to expect as the team starts examining players it wants on its big board as we get closer to this year's draft.

Here are three things I'll have my eye on during Day 2 of the combine:

1.State of the Bengals: Part of what separates the combine from other pre-draft events is that coaches and general managers from nearly every team are assembled in one place, and get to chat with reporters about the latest that's happening with their teams. Cincinnati's turn is Thursday. Coach Marvin Lewis will speak publicly for the first time since the Super Bowl.

2. Injury updates: With several players rehabbing injuries, we'll see if Lewis will have any updates. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict still is in the early weeks of his recovery from microfracture surgery, and receiver Marvin Jones continues to move past ankle and foot issues he had this past season. Tight end Tyler Eifert has apparently been doing so well in his recovery from shoulder and elbow surgery that he's been participating in hockey shootouts the past two weeks.

3. Cincy's free agency plans? Don't expect Lewis or any other Bengals representatives to share every secret about which direction the team goes in free agency. But also don't be surprised if we start getting a slightly better idea of what the organization might like to do with its current free agents now that the start of the free-agency period is a little closer.

4. Bench presses begin: We'll start seeing the first testing results of the combine as offensive linemen, tight ends and specialists participate in the bench press. The exercise is an important test in determining players' strength. Last year, North Carolina product Russell Bodine paced all combine participants in bench reps by lifting 225 pounds 42 times. The Bengals were impressed by that and drafted the center in the fourth round.

5. Who to watch? Quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs all arrived to Indianapolis late Wednesday. Those players will speak with media Thursday. In Cincinnati's case, it will be important to keep an eye on receivers. Devin Smith (Ohio State), Phillip Dorsett (Miami of Florida), Breshad Perriman (Central Florida), Rashad Greene (Florida State), and Nelson Agholor (USC) are possible early round options the Bengals could consider.
CINCINNATI -- Expect the Cincinnati Bengals to be one of the teams with the most space when the 2015 salary cap is formally announced.

Based on current estimates of the league-wide cap, it appears they will be about $33 million under the limit. Only six other teams can say for now that they will have at least that much cap space for the new league year.

Officially, the league year begins next month when contracts for the 2015 season are recognized. By 4 p.m. ET on March 10, all 32 teams must be under the new cap limit.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, seven teams, led by the New Orleans Saints, will have to race to get under the cap in the next few weeks. Each of them are currently operating over the limit, with the Saints' spending more than $27.9 million over it.

ESPN Stats & Information's cap numbers were published in a chart in this story on free agency earlier this week and are based on the assumption of a $140-million-per-team cap limit for 2015. Using that projection, the Bengals have $32,802,385 to spend entering free agency and the draft. That number is determined by calculating the initial cap limit of $24,105,075 that the Bengals have and adding it on top of the $8,697,310 rollover from the team's 2014 spending.

Most teams like to hold some funds in a reserve fund that later can be rolled over and included in the following season's spending. The $8.7-million rollover is the sixth-largest for a team this year. Expect the Bengals to hold on to another sizable chunk of their cap space this year in order to have an amount that can carry over to next year's spending. Doing so is common practice for them.

Green
Does all this cap space mean the Bengals are going to buy the world when free agency starts next month? Probably not. But it does mean the Bengals can afford to be a little more aggressive with their free agency spending -- as coach Marvin Lewis has suggested -- than in past years.

When free agency started last year, the Bengals were in the $30-million ballpark in cap space. But last offseason was vastly different than this one. They had two primary spending objectives last offseason: to re-sign Andy Dalton and Vontaze Burfict. This year, Cincinnati doesn't have any massive contracts to extend unless it decides to move a year early on Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. He could command an offer that would make him one of the highest-paid receivers in the league. Eight wideouts currently make more than $10 million a year. Green definitely could be part of that group.
CINCINNATI -- There are so many days, weeks and months between now and the moment when the question above will officially be answered.

But that doesn't mean we can't debate the merits of it at this time.

Will the Cincinnati Bengals' playoff streak end in 2015? Some outside Paul Brown Stadium are already answering in the affirmative. They believe that after four repeat postseason trips -- the longest such streak in franchise history -- the Bengals will be on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in next January.

Of course, it's only the beginning of February, and so much can happen in these next 11 months to change minds and odds. But for now, it appears we're talking about an AFC North dictated by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens -- not the Bengals.

On Monday, Las Vegas oddsmakers put the Bengals at 40-1 to win Super Bowl 50. There were 13 teams with better odds, five of them in the AFC. Given that there were four other AFC teams that shared the Bengals' 40-1 odds, it stands to reason Vegas currently believes the Bengals either will sneak into the postseason with the conference's No. 6 seed or will be a near-miss.

Also this week, ESPN Insider Mike Sando didn't have the Bengals in his really early playoff projections. Like Vegas and others, Sando is placing the Steelers and Ravens ahead of the Bengals. A case certainly could be made that the Steelers are trending back to their old, elite status in the division.

While optimism that the Bengals can make a fifth straight playoff appearance might be hard to come by, there are reasons the Bengals shouldn't enter next season feeling complete doom-and-gloom.

Yes, their inconsistent quarterback will be back, but so will each and every coach who was on the staff this season. Both coordinators, who just finished their first seasons in those positions in Cincinnati, will be back. That familiarity has already made a difference in offseason meetings. Instead of trying to get other assistants to understand their terminology and personalities, as was the case the past February, the coordinators are using this time to build upon what went wrong this season.

The Bengals will also get back a number of players who missed significant portions of the year due to injury. There is a hope Marvin Jones can get back to his 2013 playing status. If he does, he'll give the Bengals another good passing option in addition to A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu. Tight end Tyler Eifert also will be healthier and is expected to build off what was a strong preseason before his Week 1 injury this past fall.

Uncertainty over how linebacker Vontaze Burfict bounces back from microfracture surgery could impact the defense, but there's little reason to believe the unit, which is dedicating itself this offseason to finding more effective pass-rushers, will be any worse than it was in 2014.

Special teams has been a strength lately, and with Kevin Huber and Adam Jones returning, that doesn't figure to change any time soon.

Will the Bengals' playoff streak end in 2015? Maybe. But it's far too early to completely dismiss them.
CINCINNATI -- Paul Guenther made major waves at the start of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason four weeks ago when he told reporters covering the team that defensive tackle Geno Atkins was "just a guy out there" at times this past season.

Hours before making the proclamation, the defensive coordinator shared a similar message in a closed-door meeting with his lineman, imploring him to take it with him into the rest of the offseason.

Atkins
Asked earlier this week if he believed Atkins could make his disappointing 2014 season a distant memory, Guenther told ESPN.com he expected the lineman to do exactly that.

"I'm confident that he'll come back next year and be the guy that we all know," Guenther said. "After going through the year of working through his injury, I feel confident he's going to come back with a vengeance."

Atkins missed the second half of the 2013 season after tearing his ACL and undergoing surgery to fix it. All last offseason, he rehabbed the injury and had hardly any time to build up the rest of his body for the grind of a full regular season. As a result, it appeared his explosion and lauded first-step pass-rush technique suffered. In turn, his production took a sharp dip.

Despite having just 34 tackles and three sacks, numbers that were among the lowest for a regular season in his career, Atkins still made this year's Pro Bowl. After playing in all of Cincinnati's games this year, he appeared in Sunday's game for winning Team Irvin, coached by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin. He didn't record a statistic.

Two years ago, the last full season Atkins played, he recorded 12.5 sacks. He also led the NFL that year with a 12.7 pressure-percentage rating, a metric tracked by Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, he either hurried, hit or sacked quarterbacks on 12.7 percent of the snaps he was part of in 2012. This season, he did the same on 6.7 percent of his snaps, a figure that was mediocre this season, at best.

After Sunday's Pro Bowl, Atkins told Bengals.com in Arizona that he felt strong this season. He also said he hadn't given much thought yet to how his offseason conditioning will go this year. For now, there's only one item on the offseason to-do list: to relax.

"I'm looking forward to having an offseason and chill," the typically uncommunicative Atkins said. "Football season is over. It's a long season."

Still, the goal Guenther, other coaches and trainers have for Atkins these next six months involves training for football specifically.

That's the same process cornerback Leon Hall endured as he recovered from a second Achilles surgery in three years. It's the same process linebacker Vontaze Burfict will go through this spring and summer as he tries to get his left knee healthy again following microfracture surgery earlier this month. The Bengals hope he'll be ready by training camp.

"They're two of our marquee players," Guenther said of Atkins and Burfict. "They're a key fit and part of what we do here. As for Geno, we just have to get him back to full strength where he once had it. That would be huge."

For a pass rush that was arguably the league's worst in 2014, it certainly would be.
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis received a pair of firm endorsements from his top two assistant coaches who told ESPN.com on Tuesday they believed Lewis pulled off one of his best head-coaching jobs in 2014.

"Outstanding," Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.

"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said, referring to the lockout-affected 2011 season. That also was the year that began a playoff streak that reached four seasons earlier this month. Like all their playoff appearances since 2005, the Bengals have failed to get out of the wild-card round in each of the last four years.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
John Grieshop/Getty Images"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
In the immediate wake of the latest postseason defeat, a 26-10 loss at Indianapolis, calls sounded for Lewis' firing. Inside the offices at One Paul Brown Stadium, they fell on deaf ears.

Team president Mike Brown had no plans of making a swap at the top of his coaching staff. Like others around the organization, he continues to believe Lewis gives the organization its best chance for finally clearing the playoff hurdle.

"What's happened here, which is great, is that it's expected that you're going to be in the playoffs," Jackson said. "The expectation's changed. At one time, that wasn't even the expectation. Now, that's the expectation, and this is a good, young team. He did an outstanding job. One, of coaching his coaches. Two, of coaching the football team, motivating the football team and leading the team and the staff and putting us in position."

Jackson wants those still irked by the string of first-round exits to blame the players and the coaching staff.

"We have to reward him for a job well done," Jackson said. "He helped get us to the dance, and now we have to go dance."

The Bengals went 10-5-1 and were potentially a lost fumble away from winning the AFC North.

The assistants lauded Lewis specifically for the way he managed, with two first-year coordinators and two new position coaches, the flood of injuries that hit the team at various times of the season. One of the newest position coaches, linebackers coach Matt Burke, was hit by the injury bug harder than most others. Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict only finished two games after dealing with head, neck and knee injuries. Fellow starters Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur missed multiple games due to hamstring issues.

There also were injuries to tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed all but one quarter of the season opener; receiver Marvin Jones, who was hampered by injuries since early last offseason and never made it on the field for a game; and tight end Jermaine Gresham, receiver A.J. Green and offensive tackle Andre Smith. Veterans Geno Atkins and Leon Hall played all year, but spent all last spring and summer rehabbing serious injuries instead of spending their time actually training for optimal play during the long season.

"If you want to know the truth, it's amazing," Guenther said.

Neither assistant wanted to call the season a success. Both were quick to point out the many flaws their sides of the ball had in 2014, and how they are working with Lewis to resolve them and to finally win that playoff game.

"I would hope everybody feels it in the pit of their stomach like our coaches do, like I do," Jackson said. "You've got to have that fire that burns in order to get over to the other side. We've got to take it and work our tails off to get there."
CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict has been absent from the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive huddles the last six weeks, but at least one of his teammates can barely tell.

Defensive end Wallace Gilberry said earlier this week that the "Will" linebacker's replacement, Vincent Rey, has started turning into a more diminutive version of Burfict. Rey, according to Gilberry, is letting his inner dog show.

Rey

"Vinny's become a little mean," Gilberry said. "I don't know what's going on with him, but he's becoming a little pit bull."

Told what the lineman said about his new attitude, Rey, sporting a pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses, smirked and said, "I think that's a good thing."

It is. It's especially a good thing for a player who off the field looks more like a history teacher than a linebacker. Among the many approachable defenders in the Bengals' locker room, Vincent Rey and the word "mean" don't really seem to go together. This week, though, when the Bengals travel to Cleveland for an important AFC North game against the Browns, they must.

That's mainly because Rey will be the linchpin in a Bengals defense that is facing Johnny Manziel in his first career start. A mobile quarterback noted for his ability to extend plays and to escape the pocket, Manziel presents a unique challenge. While there isn't much film on the rookie -- he's only played 17 snaps this year -- he is coming off a college career that was full of highlight-reel worthy moments.

For that reason, Rey believes the Bengals can't get too worked up if Manziel picks up big gains sporadically throughout the game. The key will be to keep them as inconsistent as possible.

"He is going to make some plays," Rey said. "Heisman Trophy winner, he made a lot of plays in college. But it's on us to keep doing our jobs and to work together as a unit. When we do that, we play well."

Coach Marvin Lewis has been adamant this week in getting his players to realize that the best way to combat the read-option is to maintain their assignments.

Rey has understood that.

"My approach is getting all of us on defense getting lined up right," Rey said. "If we're all lined up right, especially in the front seven, we'll give ourselves a good chance to get plays stopped."

That's where being a pit bull can come in handy. As long as Rey remains firm in his rattling off of play responsibilities and assertively calls out any pre-snap changes, his teammates will pay attention to him.

They'll also keep paying attention if he continues to play as authoritatively as he has. Last week he had 15 tackles, one shy of the career-high 16 he had at Indianapolis earlier this year.

In his first seven games, including the Colts game, when he mostly relieved Burfict after in-game injuries, Rey averaged 5.4 tackles. In the six contests since he started in place of the Pro Bowl linebacker, Rey has averaged 9.8 tackles.

Rey contends that little has changed with respect to his approach since Burfict's latest injury. But he does acknowledge that having a better respect for the sport and being more confident in setting the defense because of his off-field study.

"It's one thing to prepare your body, but I've realized that preparing your mind to go out there and stop these great players in this league is very important," Rey said.

The Bengals hope the pit bull will be ready Sunday for his one of his toughest tests yet.
CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict is facing a quandary.

According to Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, the Pro Bowl linebacker has to decide in the coming days whether to undergo another surgery to better strengthen his left knee, or to simply let it heal naturally from its previous procedure and go through rehab the next several months.

So far, Burfict hasn't been able to make up his mind.

Burfict
"He can't decide, which is where we were the first time around with him," Lewis said during his Wednesday news conference.

On Tuesday, the Bengals officially ended Burfict's season, bringing weeks of suspense and intrigue to a close when they placed him on the season-ending injured reserve. He became their ninth player to go on IR this season, and the second in as many weeks. Currently, the Bengals have eight players on IR after linebacker J.K. Schaffer was waived last week after completing his rehab duties from a preseason concussion.

Tight end Tyler Eifert also still is on IR after being given a "to return" designation back in Week 2. He has been eligible to practice for more than a month but has not practiced.

Burfict missed the last six games after hurting his left knee early in the Bengals' Week 8 home victory over Baltimore. He finished the game, but doctors later found that he had worn down cartilage in the knee and needed arthroscopic surgery. He underwent the procedure Oct. 29 in hopes of missing one or two games. The Bengals never formally announced an expected return date, but coach Marvin Lewis hinted early on that Burfict shouldn't be away for long.

Clearly, that didn't happen.

"Well, we don't ever give a timeline on a diagnosis. That's why," Lewis said. "Each injury has to be treated with whatever is required, whatever is affected, and then go from there. But we can't put a timeline on a player. We try not ever to. Sometimes the player makes the decision to have the treatment go a certain way based on, 'How can I get back if I can?' but ultimately, the decision has to be based on his career going further out."

Lewis said he thought Burfict would be back in time to start next season if he elected to have surgery. Asked if microfracture surgery was an option like Texans rookie defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Lewis declined to say yes or no. Clowney is expected to miss some time next season even after going through the microfracture surgery this year.

"I shouldn't have put a timeline on it," Lewis said in response to the microfracture surgery option for Burfict. "We'll see."

Part of the reason Burfict has had a tough time making a decision, just as he did with the first surgery, is that this is relatively foreign territory for him. October's procedure was the first time he had ever had surgery. The linebacker's competitive streak might be getting in the way, too. Until this year, little as far as bumps, bruises and scrapes had kept him off the field. If he took a hard shot in a game, he often was right back on the field a few plays later.

"On Sunday, he told me he was ready to play," Lewis said, cracking a smile. "That's why he is what he is. He's such a competitor and everything."
CINCINNATI -- As a scribe, it pains me to applaud the scene I'm about to describe.

But as someone who appreciates good displays of leadership, it seems appropriate to highlight the following given the direction the Cincinnati Bengals' defense is now forced to turn with news Tuesday that linebacker Vontaze Burfict is done for the season with a knee injury.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsNow that Vontaze Burfict is officially gone for the season, the Bengals' defense will have to pick it up.
Here's the setting: Bengals locker room, linebacker's corner, 10 minutes after Sunday's 42-21 loss to the Steelers.

Characters: A still-in-uniform Vincent Rey and a street-clothes-clad Vontaze Burfict.

For several minutes, Rey chatted with myself and a couple other reporters in front of his locker as we asked him about the Bengals' inability to stop the Steelers in a 25-point fourth quarter that decided the game.

He put a lot of the problems on himself.

Five times in barely a minute, Rey -- who otherwise played well, finishing with a career-high 15 tackles -- said some variation of the words "I'll continue to learn," or "I'll get better" as he tried to explain how Le'Veon Bell was able to rush for 110 yards on seven carries in the final period.

By the third and fourth time Rey said it, a voice behind him started calmly calling his name. "Vinny. Vinny. Vinny. Stop saying that, Vinny."

It was Burfict, the Bengals' injured third-year linebacker. Eventually Rey, a player with two more years of seniority on Burfict, got the message.

"We'll get better as a team," Rey said, drawing a "there you go" from Burfict.

All Burfict wanted was for him to focus on the team, not the individual.

So why am I so opposed to that moment as a writer? Because there are few things as damaging to the reporting process as having a player (or coach, for that matter) dictate what gets said by another. If Rey wanted to put himself on the hook, so be it. It's how he was feeling in that raw, emotional and honest moment.

The reason I can respect that moment, though, is because it showed just how great an influence Burfict has on the Bengals' locker room. It showed exactly why he, a player younger than Rey, can command the respect that he does in the huddle. And it proved why his loss to a season-ending knee injury this week could have a demoralizing effect on Cincinnati's sideline.

Now that he's on injured reserve and will undergo a different kind of rehab than what he was going through the last six weeks, Burfict likely will be seen a little less around Paul Brown Stadium. He won't be there as often during the hours the rest of the team is. What that means for his teammates is less time talking football in person with the smart defender, and less time actually learning from him outside of text-message conversations.

It also means that a crucial mentor, adviser and motivator won't be around as the Bengals enter a crucial final three-game stretch that could impact the team's postseason makeup.

The silver lining to all of this, though, is that Burfict hasn't been on the field for six weeks. The Bengals have been forced get by without him all season. But that has led to disastrous results at times.

With Burfict virtually a non-factor, the Bengals have had trouble getting pressure in certain pass-rush situations, and also have had problems stopping the run. They're tied for 28th in total defense, and rank 27th against the run this season.

Now that Burfict is done for the season, it's on his replacement to live up to his post-game decree.

Rey's time has arrived to play better, keep learning, and maybe lead.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers will continue to put a patchwork defense on the field Sunday when they visit the Cincinnati Bengals.

Starting outside linebacker James Harrison is doubtful for the 1 p.m. ET game after hurting his knee last Sunday. With Harrison expected to miss his first game since re-signing with the Steelers in September, the Steelers will likely go with a rotation of Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones at right outside linebacker.

Harrison
Harrison
Jones is still on the injured reserve/designated to return list, but the Steelers are expected to activate the second-year man from that list, something that would probably happen Saturday.

Jones has been out since dislocating his right wrist in a Sept. 21 win at Carolina, but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Thursday there is a "good chance" that Jones plays against the Bengals.

The Steelers will be without a starter on the other side of the ball as right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been ruled out for Sunday because of an ankle injury. Gilbert, who said he is also dealing with a knee injury, will miss his second consecutive game and third one this season.

Mike Adams will start in his place at right tackle.

All of the other players on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week are listed as probable for the first of two games they will play against the AFC North-leading Bengals this month. That includes linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle), nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder), and cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb).

The Bengals will be without Vontaze Burfict, their top linebacker, as he has been ruled out for Sunday because of a knee injury.

SPONSORED HEADLINES