Cincinnati Bengals star linebacker Vontaze Burfict is facing a five-game suspension to start the season after the NFL decided a hit on Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman went too far. The Cincinnati Bengals will struggle to replace him, as he showed again on Sunday how important he is and how good he can be when healthy and in shape.
I’m not here to discuss if the suspension is fair or not, although I’ll say I think the NFL was waiting for him to do anything to back up the repeated mantra among media and executives that the Bengals are a reckless team filled with troublemakers.
Burfict is the leader of the Bengals’ defense and also the enforcer. He makes plays and also brings up the heat. No other guy can do that as impressively as he does. He proved again his worth against the Washington Redskins, putting on a show as the starters completed a good performance on the road in their dress rehearsal of the preseason.
Burfict was the main story on Sunday among a unit that struggled when the top pass rushers went to the bench, but he wasn’t the only story. As always John Sheeran took care of the linemen, and we’ll discuss the rest of the defense. Again the lack of quality film available in the preseason makes the evaluation job a little harder, but during the preseason most of the offense usually happens in the middle of the field.
Burfict can’t be replaced
Last season the veteran linebacker was the difference between a defense that couldn’t stop opponents to save their lives to a unit that actually looked good toward the end of the year. After his suspension, it took some time for Burfict to get into shape, but when he did... oh boy! Now he’s already found the rhythm, and he brought his relentless style of football to Landover on Sunday, starting from literally the first play.
Burfict doesn’t just tackle the ball carrier. He sets the tone for the rest of the game and makes opposing receivers think twice on whether they want to get there or not. No other Bengal can do this. While Nick Vigil and Vincent Rey can and will replace part of his production in coverage and against the run, nobody is replacing his impact.
Just check out Kevin Minter trying to impose his will on 50-year old Vernon Davis.
Can anybody else light the fire inside the Bengals defenders’ hearts? I don’t believe so.
To be fair not many teams would have a suitable backup for a guy like Burfict, but in Cincinnati’s case, the linebacker corps has been lacking in personality for a while. The former Arizona State standout not only boasts relentless motor and aggression, he’s also a very talented football player who can make plays both in coverage and on the ground, and he again displayed it on Sunday. Burfict reacted quickly navigating through traffic to undercut Kirk Cousins’ ill-advised throw to the flat and return it for six.
We’ll see what the plan is, but as of right now it appears Vincent Rey will take over his duties both in base and nickel. Rey is a versatile linebacker but better suited as a part-time player, so the drop off could be important.
Derron Smith could challenge Clayton Fejedelem for the starting spot during Shawn Williams’ injury absence
With strong safety George Iloka injured, Fejedelem has been his replacement so far. It’s not that he hasn’t been good. As I said before, it’s hard to gauge how well the secondary actually plays in preseason without better film and offenses willing to throw deep more often. The second-year player out of Illinois has made some tackles and also showed up in their blitzes, but we usually forget about Smith, taken in the draft one year before, who also shined a little when given the chance during the regular season. With strong safety Shawn Williams out on Sunday, Smith started in his place while Fej started again for Iloka.
Smith is supposedly a better coverage guy, but the Bengals interchange their safeties a lot, and the Californian was consistent against the run on Sunday, showing the discipline some forget when they’re just looking to get in the spotlight during the preseason.
Smith played the most snaps against the Redskins among the safeties, and he’s making the most of his chance. His calling card, the coverage skills, were also in full display.
Pressure is everything
Getting to the quarterback is like water for this Bengals defense. They play heavy zone schemes and rely on their front four to bring up the pressure, and they usually struggle when they lack the pass rushers, like in 2014 and 2016.
Now that the team added Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson and Chris Smith plus the depth of the rotation inside that allows to keep the big bodies fresh, you saw on Sunday how they were able to get stops. When those key guys were on the bench, though, longtime backup quarterback Colt McCoy attacked the middle of the field time after time, often for big gains. Just check out some of the pockets the former Brown had. He had plenty of time for the receivers to sit in the zone and for him to throw a fastball in the window.
Of course we are talking about a former starting quarterback going up against third stringers, but the point remains. The Bengals defense is effective when its line gets some push, and when it does not, opposing quarterbacks are going to find it easy to move the chains against the team.
Hopefully, with a reloaded line that now includes Willis, Lawson, Smith, nose tackle Andrew Billings and tackle Ryan Glasgow the results will be much better than in 2016.
Next up is the last game of the preseason on Thursday against the Indianapolis Colts, and it’ll be an opportunity for the backups and roster hopefuls to make an impact.