Bengals linebacker Dan Skuta is perhaps the most unappreciated linebacker on the team. Check that. He is the most unappreciated. Following Rey Maualuga's injury last year, Skuta filled in as the team's starting middle linebacker, noticeably stronger as a run defender and pass rusher (had four quarterback hurries). Though his pass coverage left a lot to be desired, allowing an opposing quarterback rating of 155.7 -- all eight passes attempted against guys he covered were caught for nearly 100 yards receiving and a touchdown. At the same time Skuta played a variety of special teams roles, especially kickoffs.
Despite all of that it took us by surprise when Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther called the battle for strong-side linebacker between Skuta and Manny Lawson "virtually" neck-in-neck. Guenther said following Wednesday's practice:
"I think it's close. Skuta is having a great spring," Guenther said. "He's played a lot of roles. He's played defensive end, he's played SAM, he's played the middle. He's played in the nickel. His goal is to start just as it is for Manny to keep his starting job."
As of right now we don't expect much to change. The Bengals signed Lawson to a $2.1 million contract with at least $600,000 worth of bonuses over the offseason (Skuta signed a one-year deal worth $1.26 million as a restricted free agent). And like Skuta, Lawson's strength comes from his run support, scoring the third-best grade as a run defender on the team, best among all linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus.
We suspect that Guenther is more or less referring to the player's knowledge of the defensive playbook, and understanding where they're supposed to be during the play. There's been no contact, drills or show of physical force during the offseason, so we suspect that Lawson will eventually claim the starting spot for good once Training Camp kicks off the season.