Reports surfaced that safety Taylor Mays took snaps at linebacker during Wednesday's practice. Count me as one that's intrigued by the possibility and appreciative that Cincinnati is thinking outside the box -- despite having their delicate hand pressed against the fire because they're out of options.
But that's the painful truth.
Mays isn't taking snaps at linebacker because of coaching intrigue, or how he might be a better fit at linebacker. In fact, I find it ironic that the team is experimenting with Mays as a coverage linebacker, despite the general perception that he's a liability in coverage. In other words, if he "sucked" in coverage as a safety, what's to say that he'll be better as a nickel linebacker, replacing the team's best coverage backer in Emmanuel Lamur? This is the same safety that allowed two receptions, one of which was a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys during the preseason.
In two seasons with the Bengals, opposing quarterbacks targeted receivers that Mays covered seven times. Five were completed for 59 yards passing, including two touchdowns and a collective passer rating of 136.3. During his season (2010) with the San Francisco 49ers (who drafted Mays in the second round and traded him to Cincinnati within the year for a seven), quarterbacks completed 13 of 16 passes (81.3 percent) for 263 yards passing, including a touchdown and a passer rating of 139.6. Obviously there's differences. The entree on his menu focuses more on tight ends and running backs, not deep zones against speedy receivers down the sidelines. That will make a difference for the four-year defensive back... I mean, linebacker.
For his part, Mays is working overtime to cram for the position with linebacker coach Paul Guenther, writes Joe Reedy with the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Said Mays of the adjustment: "It’s the same thing as when a safety inserts into the box. Some of the run gap fits are a little different. Paul does a good job of teaching and making things simple. I’ve been picking it up quick. I feel good about it. Some stuff you have to learn on the field but I have to get it done."
I'm open to the idea. Intrigued even.
If the opposition runs the football with Mays at nickel, Paul Brown Stadium should queue Drowning Pools' Let the Bodies Hit The Floor. There's no disputing the guided rocket that Mays transforms into when he targets someone -- sometimes there's collateral damage, a casualty of this war I suppose.
Obviously as a Bengals fan, I hope it works out. Ultimately, it's sad that the team feels that this is the best move, given their options. But it is. Thomas Howard is clearly not ready (knee, conditioning, whatever) and the stable of linebackers currently on the roster are more likely lean forward than they are to strafe into coverage.
Let's see what happens.
MAUALUGA'S REDUCED ROLE AS BURFICT CARRIES THE HEADSET
I'm not sure why he's talking about it. Or why he's being asked about it. But Rey Maualuga is answering questions about fan criticism.
Maualuga on last season: "A bunch of people were really upset and they’re looking for me to get my (crap) together and stuff like that."— Joe Reedy (@joereedy) September 4, 2013
Yet, Maualuga wasn't a bad linebacker by any means. He finished second on the team with 152 tackles in 2012 -- though he missed 18 tackles. And two years ago he added an interception and three forced fumbles to go along with 115 tackles -- again, second on the team (Thomas Howard, 120). But in reality, pass coverage has clearly been the identifying struggle. Nearly 80 percent of the receivers that he covered last season caught the football, including two touchdowns and an opposing quarterback rating of 109.5. Cincinnati's postseason loss to the Houston Texans was especially bad.
Cincinnati re-signed him to a two-year deal, but Vontaze Burfict was given the headset. The de facto defensive captain. Despite entering his second season, it's an earned title. Along with copious amounts of trash talk against the opposing offense, Burfict is taking responsibility for everything. Due to the level of respect he has for Maualuga, Burfict doesn't view it as a one-man job though.
"I set the huddle and tell them the huddle call and Rey sets the front," Burfict said via Bengals.com. "It's a team game. Me and Rey take full responsibility to whatever happens out there and the communication part, that's me because I have to tell the safeties, the corner, the D-line what the play is."
However, Maualuga has accepted his role. He might be the middle linebacker, he's not the one making the call. In fact, it might be the best thing for the fifth-year linebacker.
"I’m just respecting my role here on this defense, my responsibilities and who I am as a player," said Maualuga via FoxSportsOhio.com. "I’m here to do what (the coaches) are asking me to do. If I don’t show up, I could be gone and I don’t want that to happen so I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. With respect to the coaches and the people upstairs, I don’t want to be a wasted roster spot. My opportunity is now."