Linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense and the defensive coordinator's liaison for the rest of his players. Without a good group of linebackers, a defense cannot be successful against the NFL's current group of talented running backs and strong arm quarterbacks. A list of the greatest linebackers would include Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, Ray Lewis and Lawrence Taylor.
Linebackers have a tough job. They need to have the bulk needed to plug holes to stop the run like a defensive lineman while having the speed necessary to drop into pass coverage in both zone and man schemes all while having the ability to read an offense and call an audible if necessary. Imagine how hard it is to play linebacker against a quarterback like Peyton Manning who is always changing the play at the line of scrimmage. A linebacker would need to pay attention and change the play based on what he thinks Manning changed it too. I'm sure it's not easy.
So, without further ado, the linebackers:
The Bengals play a 4-3 base defense so their starting three linebackers are Rey Maualuga, Dhani Jones and Keith Rivers and for the first year since they've been playing together, the three led the Bengals in tackles. Jones led the Bengals for the third year in a row with 86 solo tackles. Rivers was next with 51 and Maualuga finished third with 44 (he also had two interceptions this season). Unlike the rest of the defense, the Bengals linebackers didn't have to deal with many injury issues in 2010. The linebackers who started the season, finished the season. The injury bug did, however, deal quite a blow to the linebackers in the form of inexperienced players helping them out on the defensive line and in the secondary.
Rivers was drafted with the ninth overall pick in the 2008 draft out of USC. His rookie season was ended early because of a hard (and some would say cheap) block from Hines Ward that broke his jaw. Since he's been drafted, Rivers has yet to play all 16 games in a season. He played seven in 2008, 13 in 2009 and 15 in 2010. Many have been disappointed with Rivers' production since he's been a Bengal, however, he's still young and he's got the size and speed necessary to be a successful NFL outside linebacker. He has consistently improved since his rookie season and moved into a consistent starting role. He's under contract for the 2011 season.
Jones is undersized for an NFL middle linebacker and turns 33 in February, but what he lacks in size and youth he makes up for in intelligence and football knowledge. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has said that Jones is an extension of himself on the field and Jones has shown it. He's led the team in tackles over the past three seasons and helped bring the defense, which was a constant Achilles heel for the franchise, into a top-five standing in 2009. Even though the defense didn't play to the level that they did last season, Jones still kept the injury ridden defense in the middle of the pack of NFL defenses in 2010. Jones is not under contract for the 2011 season.
Maualuga miraculously fell to the Bengals in the second round of the 2009 draft and the Bengals wisely capitalized on the opportunity. Since his draft, Maualuga has been a fan favorite and from my vantage point up in the nose bleed section of Paul Brown Stadium during game day, I've seen the number of fans wearing Maualuga jerseys steadily rise. He was known for his hard hits and tenacious attitude. Maualuga has played well against the run but struggled at times in pass coverage (even though he led all linebackers with two interceptions in 2010). Zimmer said that Maualuga had an "okay" year in 2010 but Pro Football Focus ranks him as the teams best at his position. Maualuga is under contract for the 2011 season.
The Bengals backup linebackers may be the corps greatest strength. Backup outside linebacker Brandon Johnson has proven invaluable both in special teams and in obvious passing down situations. Roddrick Muckelroy ranked second on the team in special teams tackles and tied for the team lead in forced fumbles. Even on-again-off-again defensive end Michael Johnson spent some time at outside linebacker before he was forced to play defensive end due to injuries on the line. Even though we didn't get to see it in 2010, Johnson's freak athletic ability could have a massive impact from the linebacker position in passing situations. All backup linebackers are under contract for the 2011 season except Brandon Johnson.
It's currently unknown whether or not the Bengals will resign their defensive leader and middle linebacker, Dhani Jones, before the 2011 season. If they don't sign him, it's also unclear who will attempt to fill Jone's very large shoes. Maualuga is physically built to play the middle linebacker position and many believed he'd be Jone's eventual replacement. But what about Muckelroy? Also, the Bengals would need to consider who would take over Maualuga's outside linebacker position. Even though the Michael Johnson played defensive end for most of the 2010 season because of injuries, could he possibly be ready for a starting job? Maybe the best course of action would be to re-sign Dhani Jones for a couple more seasons until the Bengals can find a perfect replacement or ease Maualuga/Muckelroy/M. Johnson/somebody else into their new positions.
Even though the Bengals defense fell from a top-five ranking in 2009 to a No. 15 overall ranking in 2010 and the linebackers are considered the leaders of the defense, all of the blame can't necessarily rest on their shoulders. A massive amount of injuries on the defensive side of the ball will strongly reflect on the linebackers stats throughout last season. If the defensive line and the secondary is shredded by injuries, any defense would have a hard time competing, especially against some of the best offenses in the NFL. The starting linebackers still led the team in tackles and, even though they're young, they continue to improve.
Since they do it all, the linebackers are a reflection of the defense's stats as a whole. The defense fell out of the top-five and top-10 defenses in the NFL from 2009 to 2010, and while a lot of the blame can be aimed at the fact that there were a massive amount of injuries on the defense, some of it can go to the linebackers who definitely have room to improve. Even though Jones led the team in tackles, he wasn't in the top-20 in the NFL and the Bengals defense allowed the third most runs of 20 yards or more in the league throughout the regular season.
My final grade for the linebackers performance in 2010 is a C.
What do you think?