After leading the team in tackles last year as rookie, linebacker Vontaze Burfict is being asked to find even more ways to lead this season.
“It’s time for him to start being more of a leader,” defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. “A year ago he was a young guy, but now he’s starting to come into his own. It’s a process. I’ve talked to him about taking charge of things.
“He’s a smart guy that understands everything we do,” Zimmer added. “He communicates real well with everybody and tells them what to do.”
The youngest of the 22 players in the starting lineup, Burfict is reluctant to call himself a leader, but he hardly shies away from acting like one.
And it’s clear his excitable, aggressive demeanor sets the tone for a defense that ranks seventh in the league in points allowed and 12th in yards.
“I think my emotions get other people fired up,” Burfict said. “Me and (defensive tackle) Domata (Peko), we are both fired up. By having a defensive lineman fired up and a linebacker fired up to help the secondary, I think it carries on. That helps as a defense.”
Expressing his emotions has never been an issue for Burftict.
Controlling them is still a bit of a challenge for the 23-year-old.
His reputation as an undisciplined loose cannon at Arizona State is a big reason he went undrafted last year.
Intent on proving teams wrong while at the same time proving the Bengals right, Burfict was on his best behavior as a rookie, drawing only a pair of 5-yard penalties.
But he was in the middle of a number of skirmishes in training camp and the preseason, including the incident where he slammed Falcons running back Steven Jackson to the ground during a joint practice in Atlanta, prompting a warning from his coaches.
“I talked to him about the notoriety and not falling back to the way he was before he came here,” Zimmer said. “But he’s a good kid. He’s the kind of football player you like. He’s got a little edge to him, but he’s a smart guy, too.”
Through seven games this year, Burfict already has drawn a team-high six flags for a team-high 63 yards, including two unnecessary-roughness calls and a 15-yard facemask two weeks ago against Buffalo. Although a few days later he received a letter from the league saying the two roughness fouls should not have been called.
“That’s going to happen in the NFL,” Burfict said. “There’s bang-bang plays. Sometimes the ref will probably see something that should be called or shouldn’t be called. They sent a letter saying it shouldn’t be called and let the refs know that it shouldn’t be called next time.”
Burfict’s ability to play on the edge while only occasionally slipping over it is why he’s not only the Bengals’ top tackler again this year, he leads the entire NFL.
NFL.com has him with 74 tackles. The Bengals coaches have him with 93.
“I don’t really look at the tackle stats,” Burfict said. “I’m really not worried about it. For me to make tackles, it’s because of the other 10 players doing their job.”
Regardless of the official number, the name — his name — is the constant at the top of the stat sheet.
Asked if he thinks people around the league are starting to know who he is, Burfict scoffed.
“I don’t really worry about that,” he said. “I just want them to know who our defense is and that we take nothing from nobody.”
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