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What to do with Vontaze Burfict and the Bengals’ linebackers

Burfict’s transition back to the middle does not seem to be working.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

When Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Kevin Minter went down with a right elbow injury he suffered during the Bengals’ Week 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it seemed only natural that Vontaze Burfict should inherit his spot.

After all, Burfict had played middle linebacker throughout his college career at Arizona State, and only an injury to the Bengals’ starting strongside linebacker Thomas Howard opened the door for Burfict to move into the starting lineup.

But the move has not paid off. Before Burfict moved back to middle linebackers, the Bengals seemed to be making progress in their bid to shut down the middle of the field and overcome their tendencies to leave opposing tight ends and running backs uncovered. Since the move, though, Cincinnati is back to its old ways.

In Burfict’s first game back in the middle, Indianapolis Colts’ tight end Jack Doyle looked like the second coming of Rob Gronkowski. Doyle finished with 12 receptions for 121 yards and a score, and was open virtually every time he ran a pattern.

The following week, against Jacksonville, tight end Marcedes Lewis torched the Bengals with a 37-yard catch, and finished with three receptions for 49 yards. Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon added another five receptions out of the backfield. Burfict was ejected with 5:35 left in the second quarter of Cincinnati’s contest with the Tennessee Titans this past week.

In two full games since making the move to the middle, Burfict finished with eight total tackles against the Colts and had seven tackles against the Jaguars. Nick Vigil led the Bengals in tackles against the Jaguars with nine, and Darqueze Dennard had 10 total tackles, most of which came against Doyle, in the win over Indianapolis.

Burfict missed the first three games of the season while serving a suspension for an illegal hit on Kansas City fullback Anthony Sherman in the preseason, and started slowly in his first game back against the Browns, where he finished with six total tackles as the Bengals’ starting strongside linebacker. Burfict returned to the form that made him one of the most feared linebackers in the NFL when Buffalo came to town the following week.

Against the Bills, Burfict led both teams with 13 total tackles, including 10 solos, had one sack, four tackles for loss, a pass defensed and another hit on the quarterback. Burfict almost single-handedly shut down the dangerous LeSean McCoy, who finished with 63 yards rushing on 19 carries, and helped corral the ever-dangerous Tyrod Taylor. Prolific tight end Charles Clay had two receptions for 34 yards.

In 2016, Burfict was among the best the NFL had to offer at his position. According to Pro Football Focus, Burfict was the highest-graded outside linebacker in the NFL over the final 10 weeks of the season. Over those final 10 games (with the exception of the Cleveland game, in which he was injured early), Burfict averaged nearly 11 tackles per game.

With Burfict at strongside linebacker and Minter in the middle, the Bengals boasted one of the top defenses in the NFL in 2017, and were No. 1 in several categories. Since Burfict moved to the middle, Cincinnati has slipped to a No. 14 rating and has been unable to get off the field on third down.

Burfict, who stands 6’1” and weighs in at 248 pounds, is an absolute beast in the running game, where he is quick and explosive and uses his size and power to beat bigger opponents to the ball. But his lack of straight-line speed (Burfict ran a 5.09 40 at the 2012 NFL Combine) makes him something of a liability in the passing game.

Unfortunately, pass protection is a big part of the job of the middle linebacker, who is expected to lock up man-to-man with running backs out of the backfield, as well as tight ends. The prototypical middle linebacker is Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, who comes in at 6’3” and nearly 240 pounds and ran a 4.58 40 at that same 2012 NFL Combine.

Fortunately for the Bengals, they do have a linebacker on the roster more in the Kuechly mold. Jordan Evans, who played both inside and outside linebacker at Oklahoma, stands 6’2” tall and weighs 233 pounds. He finished 2016 with 98 total tackles and four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He was also credited with eight passes defensed and forced and recovered one fumble.

Evans ran a blazing 4.5 40 at his pro day, and began to make a mark for himself in the preseason – so much so that Bengals’ defensive coordinator Paul Guenther called him the best cover linebacker on the team.

Even if the Bengals don’t think Evans is the answer, they’ll still have a chance to get Burfict out of the middle in Denver with Minter primed to return from his injury. Minter has been able to practice this week, though it’s no guarantee he’ll be active after a long layoff.

That’s why, even if Minter plays, the Bengals should also give Evans plenty of snaps in Denver. With the season on the verge of slipping away and the Bengals looking for a spark to help springboard its defense back to the lofty heights it once held, maybe it is time to gives Evans a shot to see what he’s made of.