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Bengal linebackers continue to struggle

The Bengals’ linebacker group looks nothing like it was expected to coming into the season. What’s going wrong?

Washington Redskins v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Back when Karlos Dansby was signed during the offseason, Cincinnati thought they would have a group of linebackers that could stop opposing offenses in their tracks. A combination of Dansby and Vontaze Burfict, with help from Rey Maualuga and Vincent Rey, seemed scary good on paper this offseason.

However, what we’ve actually seen hasn’t been intimidating, at all.

We’ve seen these linebackers get burned in pass coverage, give up significant yardage before making tackles, and make inexplicable mistakes leading to penalties and big plays.

This was apparent when the Bengals took on the Washington Redskins in London, as the linebacker play looked sloppy throughout the contest.

Perhaps the worst play by the Bengal linebackers was when Vernon Davis broke free for a 44-yard reception against Karlos Dansby.

Davis motioned over to Dansby’s side before the play, then proceeded to get to the outside and run right by him. You can see Dansby stumbling to keep up as Davis makes the catch with ease to continue running for a few additional yards.

Over the course of his career, Dansby has been known for pass defense, but at 34-years-old it seems as though he’s lost a step. Getting burned by a 32-year-old tight end is a sign that Dansby isn’t exactly at peak athleticism.

While that may have been the worst the Bengals’ linebackers were burned all day, it wasn’t the only time they showed an inability to keep up with tight ends. Earlier in the game, Rey allowed a reception to Jordan Reed, who then showcased another weakness of the Bengals’ linebackers as he evaded Burfict and dragged Rey another 5 yards before he was brought down.

Reed evaded Burfict’s tackle there, which wasn’t common in this game. In fact, Burfict led the team in tackles with 10. However, tackles aren’t all that meaningful when they come at the end of a huge play for the opposition. Take this play for instance, where Reed sends Adam Jones flying in the wrong direction and picks up the first down on third before Burfict brings him down from behind.

Many of Burfict’s other tackles in this game came at the end of four to five yard runs from the Washington running backs. He wasn’t making tackles because he was getting up into running lanes, but was instead making them because the backs were getting past the line and into the second level of the defense. The front seven as a whole has struggled to stop the run, and that continued as Washington’s backup rookie running back Robert Kelley averaged more than 4 yards-per-carry on Sunday.

Speaking of tackles, one linebacker who has very few of them is Maualuga. This season, he has just 20 total tackles, ranking 12th on the team in that category, and fourth among linebackers. His tackle numbers stayed low against Washington, as he had just 2 total tackles. Maualuga’s struggles have been apparent this season, and his number of snaps have shown that. Over the past two weeks, Maualuga has played just 24 snaps and 23 snaps in each game, respectively.

Another issue that has shown both in previous weeks and against Washington is Burfict’s discipline issue. We all know the reputation that Burfict has built, and he’s sometimes unfairly criticized for what his play. While he didn’t have any “dirty” hits in London, he still showed a lack of discipline by committing a holding penalty on third down in overtime.

Burfict’s hold was due to bad coverage, as he was beat by Reed from the snap, and it was either hold him or let him go deep. The issues that each linebacker, specifically Dansby, Burfict and Maualuga, are having stem from two main issues: age and shape.

Dansby is 34; he’s a veteran, and when it comes to athleticism he’s peaked. Both Maualuga and Burfict are a different story, though. With them, it’s the shape they’re in and their athleticism.

You may recall that Burfict and Maualuga both sat out during portions of OTAs this offseason due to the fact that they were “grossly overweight.” Both players have had this problem before. For Burfict, however, he doesn’t seem to be fixing the issue. When he went to the pre-draft combine, Burfict weighed in at 248 pounds. He’s now listed at 255 pounds on the Bengals’ team roster this season, and in reality, he probably weighs more. On top of the weight gain, Burfict had an extra three weeks off at the start of the regular season, and he didn’t play in any preseason games. If he treated that extra off time like an extension to his offseason, he’s likely not in the shape that he’s usually in at this point in the regular season. Combine Burfict’s weight issues with the fact that he’s likely still trying to get in game shape for the season, and you can see why he isn’t making tackles until the opposition has already done damage.

Maualuga, who actually weighs three pounds more than Burfict, per the team roster, also may have an issue with being in shape. He’s not very fast as a linebacker to begin with, but the weight issue makes it worse. It makes it harder for him to close on ball carriers and shed blocks, which have been his better attributes in the past.

Dansby, Burfict and Maualuga are all under-performing, as we can see them struggling to fill running lanes early in plays and keep up with receivers in coverage. If Cincinnati wants to help fix the issues at that position, they should start getting rookie Nick Vigil more opportunities. And conveniently, Paul Guenther suggests that may be happening after the bye.

Vigil isn’t exactly expected to be an All-Star, but his showing of athleticism in college and in the combine should be enough to get him on the field more, especially with the lack of athleticism being shown at the linebacker position right now.

At the scouting combine, Vigil ran a 4.72 40-yard dash, a 6.73 3-cone and a 4.0 20-yard shuttle. Those times were some of the best in his position group, so it’s clear that Vigil has good athleticism. On top of that, Vigil weighed in at 239 pounds at the combine.

I’m not saying that Vigil needs to be playing the majority of the snaps. But so far he has played just 11 snaps all season. With the struggles of the linebacker core so far, the Bengals should be seriously considering getting Vigil work on defense, especially when Maualuga comes off the field.