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Bengals Linebacker Position Transforms Within A Week

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Within the past week the Cincinnati Bengals lost Keith Rivers (wrist) and Roddrick Muckelroy (Achilles) to significant injuries, forcing them to miss part (in Muckelroy's case all) of the regular season. In response to this, the Bengals dug into free agency like rabid dogs looking for leftovers to stop the bleeding and stabilize the position from further talent degradation due to injuries. On Thursday the team signed outside linebacker Thomas Howard to fill a roll more like Brandon Johnson (weakside linebacker and linebacker in nickel formation) than Keith Rivers. Early Tuesday morning, the Bengals surprisingly signed Manny Lawson to a one-year deal in response to a void left at strong-side linebacker that began with Rey Maualuga's move the middle, compounded with Roddrick Muckelroy's season-ending injury.

As we examine what's been lost and gained during the recent linebacker musical chairs, we have to point out that there's a limited scope in our discussion in regards the strong-side linebacker spot; this isn't a knock on any Bengals player. Coming into training camp, Muckelroy and Dan Skuta, competing for the starting job at SAM, played a combined 20 defensive snaps in 2010; Skuta alone has 36 career defensive snaps. Not necessarily an extensive sample to really integrate into the discussion. So just by default, you have to consider that Manny Lawson's 57 games started, 14.5 career quarterback sacks, six forced fumbles and interception promotes an immediate improvement over the team even if Muckelroy were battling with Skuta to compete for the job; actually one could make the argument that Lawson could jump to the front of our linebacker class. Again, we're not saying anything against either fine linebacker. There's simply not enough to judge accurately due to the limited number of snaps on defense; even if we were sigh with hopelessness after eager anticipation to see what Muckelroy could bring with extended playing time.

What we're really interested in is Keith Rivers against Thomas Howard. A quick introduction. Rivers is often regarded as a disappointment (two career picks, two career sacks) because he was a ninth overall selection during the 2008 NFL Draft. In truth it's not so much his fault as it is the overwhelming expectation that a top-ten draft pick invites. However where he's perceived as disappointing (just wait for the comments to prove that point), he's also stability, save for nagging durability issues that are starting to become concerning enough to mention (missed at least one game every season and 13 of a possible career games missed). Durability questions aside, Rivers still posted 196 stops over the past two seasons (three games missed), second to Dhani Jones' 302 tackles. On the other hand, during his first three seasons with the Oakland Raiders, Howard averaged 100 tackles/season while picking off seven passes (six in 2007) with two going for touchdowns, two forced fumbles with two quarterback sacks. Howard started at least 15 games during his first four seasons before losing his starting job in 2010.

Taking a deeper examination using Pro Football Focus' grading scale, we accumulated the grades and combined Rivers and Howard's performances dating back to 2008 (as far back as their grades go). We wish we could feature Howard's best seasons, but that's not the point here. We really want to see where both linebackers are at this point in their respective careers. Can Howard help us or not, is a generic question with a specific resolve to understand the quality of improvement/degradation by replacing Rivers. Now the obvious answer is yes; we are far better off with Howard signing than we were, strictly because of Rivers' injury. Perhaps the initial question isn't logical because it compares Rivers and Howard when Rivers won't even be available, making the entire discussion irrelevant. No. What we're doing here is promoting Rivers as the benchmark as if he were playing and then wondering, is Howard an improvement or not.

And as much as we'd like to give a straight-forward answer to our quaint little quest, we can't. How's that for a letdown during the climax of another Hollywood show? Rivers and Howard are complete opposites. Whereas Rivers is extremely strong against the run (PFF grade of 14.3 over the past two years), he's incredibly ordinary against the pass (PFF grade of -2.5 over the past two years). Howard on the other hand, including the 2008 season, sported an accumulated grade of -8.1 against the run with a PFF grade of 4 in pass coverage. However we should point out that this includes the 2008 season, where Howard posted a horrifying grade of -8.7 against the run. Take that out and we're hitting roughly around average. Like we said earlier, Howard is more Brandon Johnson than he is Keith Rivers.

A more graphical representation that depicts Howard and Rivers over the past three seasons. We include Rey Maualuga into our discussion as another benchmark because he's generally accepted as the team's best linebacker (and because you just want to know) -- well until Manny Lawson was signed which makes that debate interesting. We also include Brandon Johnson.

Linebacker Overall Run D Pass Rush Coverage
Manny Lawson 27.9 14.5 14.1 1.3
Rey Maualuga* 15.7 21.2 -4.4 -4.9
Keith Rivers 16.1 13.3 0 -1
Brandon Johnson 10.7 7.5 -2 6
Thomas Howard 1.8 -8.1 -0.3 8.7
* Only two seasons.        

Overall the idea here isn't so much understanding how much better Howard is over Rivers. That's irrelevant because Rivers isn't available until, as suggests one report, midway through the regular season and only then will the comparisons be worth noting. What's really important to note here is that Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson together might make the Ravens brown their breeches. And in the end, that's all we really care about.