All eyes were probably on Vontaze Burfict making his season debut in Cleveland, but his partner in crime, second-year linebacker Nick Vigil, was the star on Sunday.
The Cincinnati Bengals were facing a very young quarterback with not too many experienced receivers around him, but the domination was real, and the 2016 third-round pick was key.
The return of The Enforcer meant that for the first time so far defensive coordinator Paul Guenther had his defense at 100%. He had, for the first time, a deep and skilled unit that can rotate in a lot of positions, including safety and cornerback, but also one that counts on the presence of its two stud linebackers to impose its will.
Vigil was all over the place on Sunday, leading the team in tackles with 12 - eight of them solo and also adding three tackles for a loss and his first career sack. He was used by Guenther in every single role. With his speed and athleticism, he can cover ground fast, and that adds a lot to his versatility. He played in one of Guenther’s nickel variations, with Carl Lawson as the de-facto SAM linebacker but rushing from a three-point stance.
He rushed the quarterback a lot. In addition to the sack he also had a quarterback hit that forced a fourth down late in the fourth quarter, although the Browns converted on the next play.
The Bengals haven’t had good rushing linebackers in a few years, but Vigil has a chance to make a difference with his special blend of speed and aggression. Please note that he was unblocked in his sack of DeShone Kizer, but it’s also the first of his career.
Even if it doesn’t show on the statsheet, Vigil’s work as a rusher paved the way for other good plays by his teammates, like this one in which he freed up Shawn Williams for the pressure on Kizer.
Some people believe he can only be a cover linebacker because of his lack of size, though. I would say that despite all his speed and athleticism what he lacks in sheer force, he’s got in determination and aggression.
That also translates to tackling, where if he’s not probably going to be a 100-tackle per season machine, he can be ferocious when it matters, and that counts as well.
If all these things make you salivate about what Vigil can become with a few more years into his NFL career, let me tell you I haven’t shown you his two biggest plays of the game yet.
The first tackle for a loss of five that he had was key to slow down the Browns enough to prevent them from getting a first down after Andy Dalton’s lost fumble, and it also made Cleveland’s kicker Zane González go for a 48-yard field goal instead of a more manageable 42 or 43-yarder.
The second one came in the third quarter, with the Browns trying to trim down a 24-point deficit. Vigil killed their drive instead and Cleveland had to punt, again, giving the Bengals the ball back and allowing them to milk the clock.
Vigil is far from a finished product. He’s still learning his trade, but he’s got all the tools. His spatial awareness needs some polishing after he allowed an eight-yard catch for a first down on 3rd & 7 because he went too deep back and also freed up a lane for a long pass to Kenny Britt going too far right instead of sticking with his zone assignment.
But as we saw in preseason, Vigil can be a monster, a complete linebacker that can cover running backs and tight ends in space and also be physical in the running game and able to rush the passer. He is a perfect fit for the Bengals nickel formations and a great fit alongside The Enforcer - he even gave Vigil his game ball.
A Bills offense that relies heavily on its tight end Charles Clay and its running game led by LeSean McCoy will be a tougher challenge for Vigil and the Bengals defense, but he’s shown he has what it takes.