Free agency and the Cincinnati Bengals. Oil and water, right? Going into the 2013 offseason, it was well-known that the team wasn't going to be active with players who were available outside the franchise, but rather focusing on their nucleus of young players on both sides of the ball--whether it was re-signing a player whose contract expired or re-upping a player that needed a new contract. Andre Smith, Carlos Dunlap, Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Geno Atkins were all signed to new contracts in one form or another. You can even throw in Michael Johnson and his franchise tag in that group, if you'd like.
Who was the other player that Cincinnati kept? Oh, that's right--starting linebacker, Rey Maualuga. When the embattled linebacker was signed to a lucrative two-year deal this offseason, most Bengals fans moaned and groaned for weeks. Why him? This is a guy who hasn't made the big-time plays that he did at USC since joining the club back in 2009 and has been criticized missed tackles and poor pass coverage. For a guy that was once viewed as a steal in the second round because of his once top-ten draft stock, he has been an overall disappointment.
Enter the 2013 season. Quietly, Maualuga has played a solid quarter of the season in his new contract. Aside from a brain-fart of a penalty at the end of the game in week one against the Chicago Bears, Maualuga has been one of the most dependable players in another effective Mike Zimmer-led defense.
Why the change? What's different?
Maualuga's New Tackling Form:
If you've watched Bengals games this year, you would have noticed fewer missed tackles and poor angles taken to ball carriers. Personally, I attribute this initially to Maualuga's philosophical change from going for the big hit to making sure the tackle is made. In four games this year, against pretty potent offenses, Maualuga has been seen wrapping up offensive players with textbook-like form and has focused on completely engulfing his target.
As has been said by Zimmer, Maualuga has been caught thinking too much and trying too hard to make the big play. Finally, in his fifth year, Maualuga has relied on instincts and is focusing on being solid instead of spectacular. With Zimmer's great coaching and the collective talent around him, Maualuga is just fitting into the defense instead of trying to be a superstar and is second on the team and is seventh in the AFC in tackles.
The Vontaze Burfict Effect:
Who is the team's leading tackler and the tops in the NFL (outside of Cleveland playing an early Thursday game)? Burfict. Zimmer has tasked Burfict with the defensive playcalling, which has allowed Maualuga to play freely. Most fans have called for Burfict to man the middle of the defense, yet when you review the tape, Maualuga and Burfict both play a semblance of the middle linebacker position.
Burfict has the most tackles on the team because they have asked him to do more things, both in coverage and at the line of scrimmage. Because of this, Maualuga has limited responsibilities and is able to keep his head clear. This is why we haven't seen Maualuga run downfield often, but rather hover within five to ten yards of the line of scrimmage and make plays.
Maualuga's Limited Pass Coverage Responsibilities:
Opposing tight ends have traditionally killed the Bengals. Last week was no exception with the Browns' emerging star, Jordan Cameron. His ten catches, 91 yards and a touchdown was pretty much the difference in the game. Some could point the finger at Maualuga, but that wouldn't be accurate. First of all, the Bengals were without safety Reggie Nelson and cornerback Leon Hall. Secondly, Maualuga wasn't tasked with covering him, for the most part.
Zimmer has masterfully made Maualuga in charge of limited space in the defense, which includes running backs on passing plays. Running back screens have also been an Achilles heel for the Bengals defense over the years, but they have limited that damage, mostly because that has been one of Maualuga's big coverage responsibilities. Not so much tight ends, H-Backs and/or wide receivers.
James Harrison's Presence A Factor?:
Why did the Bengals sign a starting linebacker who has five total tackles in four games? Leadership and attitude. The former has likely given Maualuga an ear to chew on for certain things and it has shown. Though Harrison has had limited impact this year, his expertise and knowledge of the game has to have helped Maualuga and his improved play this year.
A Two-Down-Ish Linebacker:
As I mentioned earlier, Maualuga's responsibilities have changed and/or lessened. Part of the issue with Maualuga with fans is that the supposed leader of the defense wasn't able to be an effective three-down linebacker. Because Zimmer has used Maualuga in different and more effective ways, he has been effective for tow downs and has still sometimes been on the field for three.
With Burfict's versatility and Harrison's shorter playing time, the beneficiary has been No.58. Again it comes down to Maualuga being responsible for fewer things this season. He could be on the field for two or three downs and there isn;t any kind of noticeable decline that there has been in the past.
I sincerely hope that I haven't jinxed Maualuga with this piece, but his play has to be noted. He has been a pleasant surprise this season and thoug he isn't playing at a Pro Bowl level, he is doing what he needs to in this defense and has so far lived up to that new contract.