Marvin Lewis and linebackers. In his years as the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator, the two were synonymous. Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Ed Hartwell and others all made names for themselves under Lewis' tutelage. When Lewis took over as the Cincinnati Bengals head coach in 2003, he had two major tasks: find a franchise quarterback and build the defense around talented linebackers.
In his tenure, Lewis has had trouble taking care of that latter task. Lewis has employed falling star veterans, other unproven younger free agents and rookies to try and build another stout defense. Not until recently with the hiring of Mike Zimmer as his defensive coordinator and some wise decisions in the draft has Lewis begun to piece together a unit that resembled that vaunted Ravens group from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The initial thought was that a group consisting of two veterans flanking Rey Maualuga on each side was the way to go. Manny Lawson filled in on the strong side adequately enough for a couple of seasons and Thomas Howard had an outstanding 2011 campaign. Unfortunately for Howard, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in early 2012 that ultimately wiped out his career as a Bengal.
Why? His replacement stepped up in a huge way.
Since being an undrafted free agent in 2012, Vontaze Burfict has stepped into the lineup and played quality football. As a rookie, his responsibilities were limited because he played the weakside, which was unfamiliar territory for the middle linebacker. All Burfict did was lead the team in tackles at an unnatural position and helped glue together an even more solid Zimmer unit.
In 2013, his sights are set higher--the NFL tackle crown. Throughout most of the first six games this year, Burfict has achieved that feat. With 61 tackles, Burfict ranks third in the NFL in the stat (Karlos Dansby passed him at second with the extra game he has under his belt) and has consistently topped the weekly team totals. He has already equaled his turnover total from last year with two (one fumble recovery, one interception), as well as his sack amount with one. Those 61 tackles are nearly half the amount that he had all of last season and we haven't even hit the halfway point of the season yet.
The stats aren't the only impressive aspect of Burfict's game in 2013---there are also the added responsibilities on defense. Burfict has been tasked with calling the defensive plays and lining up the rest of the unit and has done so quite well. He has been the one calling timeouts when the alignments and matchups don't look right and has suddenly become the eyes and ears of the defense. With his swagger, intensity and big hits, No.55 is bringing a new attitude to Zimmer's group.
Additionally, Burfict is now a three-down linebacker on this team--really, the only one who can boast that. Sometimes he will continue to man the weakside spot, but you will also occasionally see him kick in the middle on third and/or passing downs, making him a truly versatile player. Maualuga has become a nice support piece and has improved in 2013, but it is Burfict that has shone the brightest.
While much of the credit for Burfict's early success lies with Lewis and Zimmer, you have to give credit to Burfict himself. He has bought into the philosophy, gotten in better shape and cleaned up the issues that were hanging around his neck coming out of college.
Recent fines aside, Burfict is just what the doctor ordered for this defense. Teams around the league take note: Marvin Lewis has a new star linebacker under his watch yet again.