The main focus of the 2012 Bengals defense was the defensive line and rightfully so. The line was the strength of the team, the same way it was in 2011. They excelled at rushing the passer without needing much assistance from linebackers or defensive backs. However, the fact still remains that the heart and soul of an NFL defense exists right behind the defensive line. Linebackers have to do it all. They stop the run and they drop back into pass coverage. They need to know every defensive job on the field and that's why when you see a defensive captain calling plays, nine times out of 10, it's a linebacker.
The Bengals linebackers had interesting seasons. The team's leading tackler a year ago was injured early and replaced with a new leading tackler that could lead the defense for years to come while the team's defensive captain may be on his way out of Cincinnati.
SAM: Manny Lawson, Emmanuel Lamur
Lawson didn't have as good of a season in 2012 for the Bengals as he did in 2011. He started the majority of the games at SAM and played the vast majority of snaps. He finished the season with a Pro Football Focus score of -0.5 in run defense, a 1.3 in pass rushing and a -5.8 in pass protection. These scores combined to give him an overall grade of -6.4 for the season. Lawson finished the season with 39 tackles, including two sacks and 13 stops. He is set to hit free agency when the season comes to an end.
Lamur got more and more playing time as the season progressed at SAM in Lawson's place. In fact, the coaches decide to start him in the team's wild card playoff game in Houston over Lawson. Lawson still took more defensive stats in that game, but not by man. Lamur finished the season with a grade of 2.2 against the run, 0.0 as a pass rusher and 0.7 in pass coverage for an overall grade of 3.1.
Lamur was an undrafted free agent in 2012 and it will be interesting to see what the Bengals decide to do at SAM since they can re-sign Lawson, stick with Lamur or possible add a new outside linebacker in the draft or in free agency.
MIKE: Rey Maualuga
Maualuga was named defensive captain midway through the season, despite the fact that he is the model of inconsistency. Earlier during the season linebackers coach Paul Guenther challenged Maualuga to lose weight, which benefited the middle linebacker for a time, especially from a conditioning standpoint. He appeared quicker and the production followed.
Yet the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and during Maualuga's last game in Houston was not a good impression. He was constantly picked on for his inability to cover Arian Foster or Owen Daniels and he wasn't much better when it came to stopping the run either. Maualuga is set to hit free agency and it's currently unclear as to whether or not the Bengals want him back.
Maualuga finished the season with a -6.8 run defense score, a 0.5 pass rush grade and a -20.2 pass defense for an overall grade of -26.4. That puts Maualuga dead last of all inside linebackers when it comes to overall grade, according to PFF, in the entire league.
WILL: Vontaze Burfict
For as bad as Maualuga was at times in 2012, Burfict was the absolute opposite. He came to the Bengals as an undrafted free agent with first-round talent. He made the 53-man roster, but it wasn't until Thomas Howard's season-ending injury during practice that Burfict made his way to the starting lineup. After his first season in the NFL, he led the team in tackles with 174, and had some of his biggest games when the team needed him the most. Burfict has a natural nose for the ball and hits hard. His natural position is inside linebacker but he played well enough at WILL that if the Bengals decide to bring Maualuga back into the fold and start him, Burfict will remain the starter on the outside.
Burfict finished the season with a 3.5 run defense score, a -3.5 pass rush score and a 1.9 pass defense score for an overall grade of -1.4. With more coaching, Burfict could become a Ray Lewis-like figure in the Bengals defense for years to come.
The only linebackers that are signed for the 2013 season are Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur, Dontay Moch and J.K. Schaffer. The rest are due to hit free agency. The Bengals will either need to look to the draft, re-sign their own free agents or bring in a new crop of free agents for the upcoming season, but there's no question that there's young talent to build around. It will be interesting to see what decisions the Bengals front office make in the upcoming weeks when it comes to the team's linebackers.