Last week, I had a pretty miserable time trying to decide who to highlight, as the Cleveland Browns just do not have that many exciting players. This week's opponent presents the opposite problem, as the Cincinnati Bengals have quite a bit of individual talent.
The player I finally settled on is second-year linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The 23-year-old 6'1, 255-pound outside linebacker is on a tear this season and currently ranks second in the league in total tackles with 61. At this pace, he is set to best his rookie season in which, as an undrafted free agent, Burfict started 14 games and compiled 127 tackles.
Burfict's performance in the NFL is both surprising and expected. On one hand, it is unusual for an undrafted player to immediately step into a starting role and reach the upper echelon of recorded tackles. On the other hand, Burfict is not an ordinary undrafted rookie. In high school, Burfict was a blue chip college recruit and ranked as the No. 1 inside linebacking prospect by Rivals.com. In his first season at Arizona State, Burfict lived up to that ranking despite missing games for academic reasons and received Pac-10 and All-American honors.
Things began to turn sour Burfict's sophomore season when he started drawing an usually high number of penalties on the field and was eventually benched at one point in the season. He was still named to the All-American team and considered a future first-round draft pick, but during his junior season his play became inconsistent and the penalty problems persisted.
Lucky for Burfict, and the Bengals, Cincinnati has never been a team to shy away from character red flags. The result has been more of the same for Burfict: outstanding play and discipline problems. Within the last month, Burfict has had 4 personal foul penalties and one more "cup check" that the referees missed. The penalties are starting to generate some discussion among Bengals fans, and some believe the NFL is targeting Burfict (although they aren't quite as liberal in "rec'ing" frustration as Detroit Lions fans).
A huge part of the reason Burfict is able to compile so many tackles is that he plays behind one of the best defensive lines in football, led by tackle Geno Atkins. One preseason commentator described Atkins as a "Balrog," and I think that is incredibly descriptive (which makes Rob Sims Gandalf and Matthew Stafford... Frodo?). With this fantastic defensive line occupying blockers, the Bengals linebackers roam free and unblocked.
Burfict is not really a pass rusher, but he does his damage as a run stopper and general stop-gap. The Bengals defensive scheme is similar to the Lions in that they rely almost exclusively on their defensive line to provide pressure. This has been very effective for the Bengals and is a big reason they have a top-10 defense and allow only 317 yards per game.
As the weakside linebacker, Burfict's main duties on Sunday will be shadowing running back Reggie Bush and tracking the Lions' newest red zone toy, Joseph Fauria. The more the Lions can force Burfict into coverage, the more room Bush will have on the ground. Alternatively, if the offensive line can provide Stafford enough time, it will force the Bengals to send Burfict and fellow linebackers Rey Maualuga and James Harrison on blitzes more often.