September 30, 2014

Looking At Linebacker

With seven legitimate options to make up the linebacker corps and only six spots available, the Bengals will be forced to make a tough decision at some point. That decision may get delayed until October with a possible suspension looming over Dontay Moch, but it will have to come at some point.

Of course, Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson are locks, being starters. And with Brandon Johnson no longer on the roster, Dan Skuta becomes the team’s jack-of-all-trades backup. After these three, however, things become interesting. But some tidbits of news have come out after OTAs about the position group that warrant a look.

Rey Maualuga: Rey is the starting middle backer by default, even with speculation that he could be suspended following his offseason arrest. But more concerning was his tendency to over-pursue plays and get himself out of position. A backer who runs himself out of the play is a deficit to the team, a fact that Rey knows well enough that he reportedly watched the draft with a bit of concern for his job.

According to Geoff Hobson, “Maualuga has been reminding everybody this is his first OTA as a middle backer.” It would seem that the offseason work is doing Rey a lot of good.

Paul Brown Stadium observers are saying not only is Maualuga playing faster, but he’s also playing with a smile on his face. Guenther says he doesn’t recall Maualuga making a mental mistake in the OTAs.

Apparently the reps are doing Rey a lot of good. As are the changes to running the defense that have been made by his new coach, Paul Guenther, to better fit the way he plays the game so that he does not have to over-think plays. And so is being fully recovered from his ankle sprain.

“I felt like I was playing scared, or playing worried. At times you saw where I was getting cut-blocked, so every time someone would get low I would just give out and was just protecting my ankle first,” he said. “I was playing wrong football, as far as I didn’t want to reinjure my ankle and be done with the season.”

Question: is this the year that Maualuga becomes the player that the coaches (and the fans) thought they were getting when they drafted him in 2009?


Vontaze Burfict: Fans who were frustrated with Maualuga’s play last year were intrigued with the talented but self-imploded Burfict. It makes sense that Burfict would want to play for the coach who helped cultivate Ray Lewis, and many — myself included — love the prospect of cheering for the guy who was once lauded as possibly becoming the most dominant middle backer since Ray-Ray.

In the wake of Burfict’s 18 month free-fall from high first rounder to undrafted college free agent, there was no guarantee that he would even make the Bengals’ roster, especially if he gave the offseason workouts as little effort as he gave the Combine and his Pro Day. But reports are indicating that is not the case.

Burfict, who came in with the hard knocks of being undisciplined and lacking instincts, has drawn the praise of Guenther for how he continues to play fast even though he’s been saddled with making the calls out of a foreign playbook. With what looks to be two backer spots available and players like 2011 third-round pick Dontay Moch and 2010 fourth-rounder Roddrick Muckelroy in the mix, Burfict has asserted himself as no longer a long shot. (emphasis mine)

I am on record as saying that, even though he won’t just hand the kid a roster spot, Marvin wants Burfict on the team. Really wants him. If Burfict is willing to put in the work, Marvin will do anything he can to help him make the team. And why shouldn’t he?

Question: what do you need to see before you buy stock in Burfict? Or are you already buying in?


Dontay Moch: Though the NFL has yet to confirm it, reports indicate that Moch will be suspended by the league for the use of a banned substance. Bobbie Williams was suspended for four games the same infraction. If the league is consistent, that means Moch will have missed his first 20 games as a pro after not seeing the field as a rookie due to a broken foot and migraine problems, which has definitely slowed his development according to Hobson.

“He’s been here for a year and he’s making mistakes that he shouldn’t be making,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer this week. “He’s sat in the meetings and heard stuff but that’s not the best way for him to learn. He has to get out there and do it. He’s behind schedule that way.”

But all is not lost for the young SAM backer, who has begun to garner a bit of praise from the people who watched him play during OTAs.

“He can definitely get upfield,” said linebackers coach Paul Guenther. “He’s got value to us as a pass rusher, but we have to have confidence that we can play him on first and second down, too. And fourth down (special teams) is going to be very important for him.”

Moch’s athletic ability was compared to Jerome Simpson’s, which is a loaded analogy. But there is no denying that Simpson had incredible talent — as evidenced by his touchdown flip — even if he was never able to fully harness it while on the team. So this comparison is not a slight of Moch or an insinuation that he is doomed to fail as a Bengal as Simpson did.

Simply put, Moch needs reps. He might have attended a year’s worth of meetings, but his body is still a rookie. The good news for him is that his foot is healed and his migraines are now under control. So his development as the backup to Manny Lawson is in full swing.

Question: already behind in his development, will Moch be able to get back on the active roster if he is prevented from playing at the beginning of the season?


Roddrick Muckelroy: Despite my searching, I found no news to report about Muckelroy? It’s hard to say if that is good or bad in terms of development, but no news about the Achilles tendon that he injured in the preseason last year is definitely good.

Roddrick’s spot is the middle, where Maualuga and Burfict already are. The team will not have room for three MIKE backers. He could be moved to the strong side if needed (ie during a suspension of Moch). That puts pressure on Muckelroy to be productive at both spots, while Burfict and Moch can focus on just one. But Muckelroy has the advantage of having proven himself on special teams in 2010, something Moch and Burfict have not done.

As I said to begin the post, this is going to be an interesting camp battle to watch. Someone among the trio of Burfict, Moch and Muckelroy will eventually have to be let go. Whoever the odd man out is, he is unlikely to clear waivers. Who do you think he will be? The high-risk, high-reward Burfict? The athletically gifted Moch? Or the solid Muckelroy?