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The Bengals need to unleash LB Malik Jefferson

With the Bengals’ persistent issues on defense, they need to give their third-round pick a shot.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Words cannot describe how bad the Bengals’ linebacker situation is. With all of the issues they have had, their linebacker play remains their weakest component. Because of this, they need to play their super-talented third-round pick Malik Jefferson.

Just look at the state of their linebackers: Preston Brown was just placed on injured reserve. Vontaze Burfict, a leader and force at the position in years past, has been pacified this season and dealt with injury. Nick Vigil has missed much of the season with a sprained left MCL. Jordan Evans has had some ups, but a lot of downs in the process. Vincent Rey is a short-term fill in at best in his ninth year in the league.

And then there is Hardy Nickerson. Marvin Lewis seems to have a soft spot for Nickerson, and the defense certainly has a soft spot when he is on the field.

That leaves Jefferson, the rookie out of Texas. The Bengals defense has not shied away from featuring Jefferson’s fellow rookie teammates Jessie Bates III and Sam Hubbard, yet Jefferson has been left to watch from the sideline for all but eight plays this season. Considering where the Bengals are the least dependable on defense, Jefferson’s lack of playing time is even more of a pressing issue.

Jefferson was a blue chip recruit for the Texas Longhorns, but did not really come into his own until his final season in Austin when he totaled 110 tackles. Jefferson is 6’3” 240 pounds and has excellent size-adjusted speed and explosion, which is something no other Bengals linebacker can boast about.

The two biggest issues with Jefferson are missing tackles and his inability to process the defense. Literally everyone on the Bengals’ defense has a problem with missing tackles, so while this would be a legitimate reason to keep him off the field for many other teams, it is not a reputable reason for the Bengals to preserve him.

His understanding of the defense is a concern that Lewis has brought up, but it does not have to be a reason to hide him. Linebackers are almost always the cerebral connection between the play-caller and the defense, and they are required to set up the front and understand different aspects of the defense. But not every single linebacker on the field has these responsibilities.

A good defensive coordinator can figure out how to use their best athletes even if they don’t completely understand the defense. Hiding one linebacker is pretty simple, and the best way to do it is put him at inside linebacker. This is not the position Jefferson has worked at primarily in the past, but it makes the most sense. In addition, Lewis was adamant about Jefferson’s ability to play all three linebacker spots after Cincinnati drafted him.

With Brown decommissioned for the remainder of the season, they should turn to Jefferson instead of leaning on Nickerson at the MIKE linebacker position. From there, they can give him simple reads and assignments, and have him focus on just the tailback so he can pursue and chase.

If the running back steps left, Jefferson fills the open gap on the left side with speed and aggression. If the running back steps right, Jefferson fills the open gap on the right side with speed and aggression. If he does anything to indicate pass (free release or block) Jefferson would either drop to the middle of the field, cover the back, or spy the quarterback.

The defense could be tailored to make this work (with veteran linebackers making adjustments in some situations). This would allow Jefferson to play fast, which is what Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando did when he came in 2017, resulting to Jefferson’s best collegiate season.

Nickerson may be able to wear the green dot and get the defense lined up (when Lewis actually tells him what to do), but knowing what to do does not amount to much if you can’t actually do it. This defense needs a linebacker who has the physical ability to make plays and Jefferson is just that. A good defensive coordinator should be able to figure out how to get his most talented players on the field, and that’s exactly what the Bengals need from Marvin Lewis right now.