It wasn’t a terrible game for Vontaze Burfict in his 2016 Bengals debut against the Miami Dolphins, following the end of his three game suspension. He did record three tackles and deflected a pass in the second quarter. But, he didn’t record a single tackle in the running game and, according to Pro Football Focus, actually missed both of his two opportunities.
It’s a contrast from the Pro Bowl caliber player that we all know and love. His 74 tackles, two interceptions, and a sack in only 10 games last season were definitely up to his own standards. But, the rust endured from missing the entire 2016 preseason due to a combination of injury and coaching decisions, as well as the first three weeks of the regular season due to suspension, was clearly a factor in his first game back. That was to be expected after so much time off and needing to get acclimated to the speed of an NFL game.
The hope is that he can perform better in his second game back against the Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately for him, that means going up against one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks, featuring current NFL rushing yards leader Ezekiel Elliott.
For the most part, the Bengals’ defense has performed well against the run this year. Ranking in the top half of the league in yards allowed (390), yards per run (3.8), and are tied for No. 1 in rushing touchdowns allowed (0). The Bengals might actually have a chance to stop the rookie sensation and allow Burfict the opportunity to right his personal ship this week.
If Burfict gets some help stopping Elliott, the Cowboys will undoubtedly need to throw the ball more often. That bodes well for Burfict, who has made his career on blitzing the passer and defending well in coverage. Part of that has to do with the fact that he will be going up against an inexperienced rookie quarterback in Dak Prescott.
Granted, Prescott has been one of the biggest surprises of the season so far due to unexpectedly taking the reigns after Tony Romo’s back injury. The learning curve in the NFL can be a bit much for a fifth round rookie, but he has managed the Cowboys’ offense well and led the team to a 3-1 start on the season.
That said, a big part of the reason for Prescott’s fast start has been his conservative play as a passer and heavy use of Elliott’s ability to run. So far, Prescott has the third highest pass completion percentage of quarterbacks with at least 130 passes (67.9). But, he is tied for 13th in yards per pass (7.7), and tied for 30th in touchdowns thrown (three). The efficiency has been there, but perhaps due to minimizing the number of chances taken.
This should be an exploitable matchup for an experienced, tough player like Burfict. Can we expect a little “Welcome to the NFL” hit from a Burfict blitz this week? Maybe not, since the Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and have only allowed Prescott to be sacked six times so far. Only the Raiders’ Derek Carr has taken as many or more snaps and been sacked less (twice).
But, perhaps the presence of Burfict when rushing the passer or patrolling the middle of the field will be enough to throw the rookie quarterback off of his game and give the Bengals an opportunity to force the Cowboys to become one-dimensional. Once that happens, Burfict and the defense can focus on minimizing the Cowboys’ effectiveness on the ground.
To be fair, this strategy is exactly what teams have been trying to do to the Cowboys this season and it hasn’t been particularly effective. But, we all know what Burfict is capable of when he is in his zone, and there’s no reason he can’t return to that level this week with some help from his teammates.