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Bengals rookie Nick Vigil ending season on high note

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Without Burfict, the Bengals went to the rookie linebacker to play in their nickel packages, and Vigil didn’t disappoint against one of the worst offenses in the NFL.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

When the Bengals signed veteran Karlos Dansby in the offseason, it looked like they were going to be settled at the linebacker position, considering they mainly play nickel and Vontaze Burfict plays near 100% of snaps when healthy and not suspended. It’s been a different story though, with plenty of ineffectiveness and the rapid decline of the veterans in the unit.

One bright spot would be rookie Nick Vigil, who played the most snaps of his young career on Sunday, and seems to be primed for a bigger role next year. Burfict has been great, though it took him a few weeks following his suspension to regain his form, but Rey Maualuga and Dansby have been disappointing and Vincent Rey is ideally your swing linebacker. With nothing on the line for the Bengals, fans are turning their eyes to reasons for optimism in the future, and the Utah State product is one of those.

Vigil was mostly used on third downs and in nickel formations in Houston, and when they went to man coverage and the Texans split their running back wide out, he covered him. The third-round pick wasn’t the reason why the Texans only scored 12 points on Sunday. The Bengals’ defense has been much better since their game in London and Houston’s offense is probably the worst in the NFL. And not only that, backup quarterback Tom Savage was making his first start after Brock Osweiler was benched the week before against the Jaguars. But, Vigil showed a little bit of what he could provide if given an opportunity in 2017.

Cincinnati has a deep lack of speed on defense, and that is much more acute in the linebacker corps. The team addressed that need in the draft, but hadn’t played Vigil much until recently when injuries hit the unit. He looked lost early on, as you could have guessed given his lack of experience. He played a grand total of 11 snaps heading into their Week 11 clash against the Bills.

On Sunday against the Texans he looked comfortable though. Against the 31st-ranked offense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, Vigil played multiple roles. As mentioned above, he played wide out covering a running back on empty sets, as a robber in cover 1, man in cover 1, zone in cover 2 and 3 and even was in on a four-linebacker stand by Cincinnati against a clear running formation by Houston on third down in their first drive of the game.

He wasn’t targeted by Savage, but when Vigil had the chance to make a play, like in the Texans’ second drive of the third quarter, he was good. Houston tried to get star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins involved getting him inside, and Vigil showed nice closing speed and sure tackling, limiting him to a gain of only six yards, on first-and-20.

He showed up again right after Andy Dalton’s interception, with his team down 7-3 and looking for a stop. Playing the robber role in cover 1, Vigil was really close to batting down the pass intended for Hopkins, who ultimately wasn’t able to catch the football. On second-and-10, that was the best opportunity for Savage and the Texans to attempt a pass, as their running game didn’t work at all on Sunday outside their touchdown-scoring drive. Dansby or Rey wouldn’t have been able to get that close to that pass.

Vigil also showed why Guenther raved about his football smarts right after drafting him, on a third down play late in the final quarter in which, despite giving up ground to the running back, he protected the sticks. Savage still completed the pass to another receiver, giving Cincinnati less time for their last drive. The Texans ran two combo routes on the left side after splitting their running back wide and Vigil played it well.

The Bengals will need to see more from Vigil and hopefully give him more snaps against the Ravens on Sunday. They can avoid going into the draft with another need at the linebacker spot if they figure Vigil can man the position alongside Burfict, at least in 2017. The rookie has the tools, and has improved his understanding of the playbook throughout the year, which is what you’d like from a first-year player.

Cincinnati shouldn’t bring Dansby back next year and they already know what they have - or don’t, with Maualuga and Rey. It is time to get work done in advance and evaluate Vigil as a full-time linebacker instead of just a coverage guy, which is something it seems he could be as soon as next season.