Bengals' Vontaze Burfict returns to practice -- but will he be physically ready to play on Sunday?

Bengals' Vontaze Burfict returns to practice -- but will he be physically ready to play on Sunday?
Posted at 5:15 PM, Oct 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-03 18:10:24-04

CINCINNATI -- When someone came up from behind Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis on Monday and picked him up off the ground, he knew it could only be one player: Vontaze Burfict.

"It's time to wrestle with the bear again, I guess," Lewis said Wednesday while describing his first contact with Burfict since returning from a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. "My job gets more fun."

Wrestling the bear is what the Bengals have been doing with Burfict -- a tenacious player who brings an unmatched energy to the field -- since he joined the team as an undrafted college free agent in 2012, but Cincinnati's defense is clearly different without the veteran linebacker on the field.

Several of Burfict's teammates described him as an asset they believe will make a difference in turning around some of the struggles that have plagued the defense so far this season. That could happen as early as Sunday when AFC North-leading Cincinnati (3-1) plays host to the AFC East's first-place Miami Dolphins (3-1).

"It's going to be huge," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "You know what he brings to the football club. Right now, we're standing at 3-1 and we're looking to get better and we feel we can do some things better. He's going to step right in and fill some of those voids."

Lewis was noncommittal to Burfict even playing a role this week, though, noting he needs to see what kind of shape Burfict is in and how quickly he can absorb the game plan.

It's not the first time Burfict has come back from extended time away, though, and he's been productive in each return.

This was the third straight year he missed the opening games because of suspension. He missed the first three games of the 2016 and 2017 seasons because of egregious hits on opposing players. This time was the result of a failed drug test on December 27, 2017 -- three days after he had been ruled out for the season. Burfict appealed, arguing he was on prescription medication after suffering a concussion against the Steelers on Dec. 4 and a shoulder tear against the Lions on Dec. 24, but the NFL upheld the suspension.

After Burfict's previous suspensions, he immediately jumped back in and played more than it seemed Lewis was anticipating. In 2016, he played 34 of 45 snaps (76 percent) in his first game back and had three tackles and one pass defensed in a 22-7 win over the Dolphins. Last year in his season debut in a 31-7 win at Cleveland, he played 52 of 65 snaps (80 percent) and was second on the team with six tackles.

When a reporter asked about that Wednesday, Lewis joked he should have the reporter come down to the field and try to take Burfict off for him.

This week could be different than past situations simply because Burfict also didn't have much of a preseason. He opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list after failing a physical but quickly returned only to suffer an ankle injury that kept him out of practice after Aug. 13.

Burfict didn't play in any of the preseason games, and he was unable to even be around the team during his suspension or have contact with the coaches.

Lewis seems unsure whether Burfict will be physically ready to play. He took a sarcastic tone when noting that he is sure Burfict "checked all those boxes off and took care of all his therapy that was set up for him," and he also pointed out that Burfict also hasn't had a chance to develop much of a relationship with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

Linebacker Preston Brown joked that Burfict is "still a little chubby on the side," but noted he is in "as good of shape as Tez can be." Austin said after practice that Burfict "looked fairly sharp in what he was doing" and that he got through everything, despite the heat.

Dunlap and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said they thought Burfict looked to be in great shape, but no one expects him to be playing full games yet.

"It's pretty tough, but he's a pro, and I've seen that he was working out," Dunlap said. "I think I saw it on social media or something. I'm not sure where it was, but you can see it right now, he's in some of the best shape I've ever seen him in. He looks lean, he looks ready to go and he's excited. He's in good spirits. Of course he's healthy. Those are all positives that you add to a veteran player who plays like Vontaze plays and I think you're going to get some great plays out of him."

The Bengals need some great plays from him, that's for sure. They have struggled on defense early this season, especially the past two weeks while allowing 33.5 points per game in a loss to Carolina and win against Atlanta.

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Cincinnati ranks 23rd in scoring defense overall (28.3 ppg) and 29th in yards allowed (419.3) but is the league's worst defense on third down, as opponents have converted on 57 percent of their attempts against Cincinnati.

"Just his presence (helps)," Dunlap said. "The tenacity he brings to the game, his mind, seeing things, understanding of the football game and how teams like to attack you and just speed up the adjustments and maybe communicating with some of the younger players, there are all kind of things a veteran like him who has the mind he has can bring to a football club."

"With those things and honing in on the things that we already want to work on as a defense, collectively, adding him to the mix should turn that tide," Dunlap added. "We've got a lot of opportunity there to use his mind on third down, understanding the concepts and stuff there. That alone, just having a great football player, not that the other guys have done a horrible job, other teams were just converting plays."

Brown, who signed with the Bengals as a free agent in March, has spent limited time with Burfict but has looked forward to a chance to play next to Burfict since he joined the team. Burfict was always one of his favorite players to watch on film and try to learn from, Brown said.

Now the two sit next to each other in the locker room and will be on the field next to one another as well.

"It means everything to have Tez back," Brown said. "He's a guy who's going to go out there and give everything he's got. If he gets tired he's going to go out and come back in and give everything he's got so it's going to be fun to see."

"That's weird to be at home (one day) and be right back in it (the next), but he's been here so long that he knows the in-and-outs of this defense so he'll be able to fit right in and play like we know he can play."

Lewis tried to temper the notion that Burfict can step right in and fix the defense's problems, saying Burfict "is just one player."

However, Lewis can't downplay Burfict's playmaking ability and contributions on the field. When asked what makes Burfict so special, Lewis said it's his "suddenness."

"I think it's very common among the best linebackers that have played the game," Lewis said. "They all have that suddenness and lower body. It's not necessarily about foot speed but it's about their ability to be sudden on their keys. Their eyes have to work correctly in their keys and their reads and the suddenness they come with and the way their hips can explode. 

"He understands and sees it, and it's his composition and ability to bend his knees and go. We watched it already in 20 minutes of walkthrough."

Kirkpatrick believes the Bengals would be 4-0 right now if Burfict had been on the field for the Carolina game, one in which they allowed 230 yards rushing and lost 31-21.

He is confident the defense will make big strides this week with Burfict back.

"He just brings something different," Kirkpatrick said. "He's a veteran guy. He's a guy that's known out there on the field. And guys have to worry about him. I definitely feel that with the instincts he brings to the game, he's always one step ahead. … He's one of the leaders of this team, and we welcome him back."