Remember three years ago? Sometimes it sucked. The Bengals were way too pass happy without a proper running game to balance it out. Defensively, we were embarrassing. Why? Several reasons you could point out, I'm sure. One of those reasons was our linebackers.
Many stories and reasons for this apply. Odell Thurman, the guy that some labeled the next Ray Lewis, did whatever he could to get out of the NFL. David Pollack broke his neck early in 2006, which ended his very short NFL career. Both linebackers were ideally the guys that were supposed to be the defensive foundation. Guys like Landon Johnson filled admirably in a cast of otherwise less-than-impressive guys like Caleb Miller or Ahmad Brooks (who was nothing more than a pass rushing specialist, if that). Anthony Schlegel and Lemar Marshall played on that 2007 squad, and neither could repair the damage that the position was victim of.
If this sounds like a broken record, it kind of is. We've spoken about this before. In a post I called "Bengals linebackers went from a great weakness to a great strength in three years" (I wasn't blessed with that "creative headline" gene), we spoke how the Bengals rebounded their linebacker crew quickly. Alright, so while the title is boring, you know what it's about.
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson writes that the Bengals are one of three teams that linebacker situations that are envious, saying "I am predicting a huge year from the Bengals' linebackers." [ESPN Insider]
Maualuga is a big, nasty 'backer who plays very hard. In fact, sometimes he plays out of control and needs to tone it down a bit to cut down on false reads and unnecessary steps in pursuit. But he is the type of defender whom everyone in the stadium notices. When he gets to his target, he obliterates it. He is a downhill player who should only improve in coverage and as a blitzer, but personally, I foresee Maualuga quickly becoming a real force as a blitzer in this aggressive defensive scheme. We should see more of it in 2010. Maualuga is an up-and-comer.
I see Rivers as an up-and-comer as well, but he is a much different specimen. He doesn't leap off the screen like his former USC teammate, but he has all the qualities you look for in a WILL linebacker. He has range, fluidity, explosiveness, size and power. Rivers generally comes off the field on throwing downs, but I don't expect that trend to continue much longer, although he needs to take a step forward in this phase of his game. He is just beginning to show what is possible and I fully expect him to put it all together this upcoming season and develop into one of the better weakside linebackers in this league.
Jones is the glue. He is the brains of the operation and acts like a coach on the field. His experience is invaluable in between Maualuga and Rivers. In fact, Jones' leadership and stability makes the whole thing work for coordinator Mike Zimmer's young defense. Jones makes a lot of plays, but isn't a big-play guy and isn't a true hammer in the run game. He could use a little more lead in his shorts for taking on the inside run, but at this stage of his career, he is what he is … which is good enough, all things considered.
Williamson goes on to talk about rookie Roddrick Muckelroy, the experimenting Michael Johnson, the steady Rashad Jeanty, and the special teams strong Abdul Hodge. And yes, we also have Brandon Johnson, who was long ago on my list of players that the Bengals should sign long-term.