On Thursday, Vontaze Burfict is expected to play in his first game since returning from his three-game suspension.
Back in February, the NFL handed Burfict this punishment for repeated player safety violations, a harsh and unprecedented ruling for a guy who's been clean as a whistle off-the-field. The suspension was a brutal ordeal for Burfict, who not only missed the first three regular-season games, but was not even allowed in the Bengals facilities.
Burfict also could not watch games or practices from the stands as a spectator, nor could he have football-related discussions with teammates. He was an outcast for the first three weeks of the regular season, but the good news is he's back now, and it looks like the Bengals are already counting on him to bring a lot to the defense this week.
"He's just a guy that knows the system, knows the ins and outs of everything can make the checks and calls for us on the ball," Paul Guenther told Bengals.com. "He's a decisive guy, he understands what we're trying to do, and he brings a whole other element to the locker room and to the guys on the field."
Communication breakdowns have led to the Bengals giving up several big plays over the first three games. They may have not have allowed those plays if Burfict had been on the field. He's not just a dominant player, but also a very intelligent one football-wise and Guenther likes using him as essentially a coach on the field.
"He is vocal, but I think a lot of his leadership comes from people seeing him make plays and the plays he's making," Carlos Dunlap said of Burfict. "He's got good football sense for the ball. That's something you can't really coach. He's just that naturally. But he also plays with good technique and he's very disciplined in the defense."
Guenther has been a key figure in Burfict's rise from undrafted free agent to 2013 Pro Bowler while being regarded as one of the game's best linebackers. Even with this setback, Guenther is confident in who Burfict is as a player, and while his style will need some alterations, Burfict still needs to be the same aggressive player he's been.
"I'm sure he's aware of what's at stake," Guenther told ESPN. "I still want him to be an aggressive player," Guenther said. "I don't want any linebackers being passive, but again, at the same time, people are going to be looking for him, so he's got to understand that and do it the right way. Hopefully, he learned his lesson off what happened."
But that aggressive and all-out style is something that will often inspire his teammates to give it their all in the same way Burfict does.
"It's just that other ten percent he has," Adam Jones said of Burfict. "The attitude and getting the guys to go a little bit harder up front. It's hard for the DBs to go up there and get the guys. ‘Hey, c'mon. We need to get to the quarterback.' I say it, but it's different when you've got another guy behind you every play."
It's great that all of these little things will contribute to Burfict's return, because it's probably a little too soon to expect his actual on-field performance to be at the high level we've all come to expect of him. Burfict has been an outcast for almost a month now, and didn’t play at all in the preseason, so expecting him to play 50-plus snaps and not be rusty is probably too much to ask on a short week.
"We all know he can play at a high level, and I think he will when he comes back," Guenther told ESPN. "I don't try to pressure him and say, ‘Hey, we need to get better at this or that when he's in there.' I think it just kind of naturally happens."
Burfict’s leadership and the intangibles he brings alone will be a big addition to a defense in desperate need of a rebound as the team closes out the first quarter of the season.