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Grinders vs. Heisman

Posted Sep 21, 2012


Vontaze Burfict

This is why they have the draft. This is why they hold the games. This is why you play it out. Fate doesn't have an app on the iPad.

Which is what two young Bengals are finding out as they prepare for the biggest football assignment of their lives Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the NFL's "It" guy in the person of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III.

This is Griffin's Subway commercials vs. the Bengals sub packages.

"Everybody is talking about him; he's on ESPN all the time," says Jeromy Miles, the new Bengals starting safety. "It's hard not to miss him."

Miles, a third-year free agent from Massachusetts whose biggest home game was in front of 25,000, is prepping for the Redskins home opener at FedExField expected to draw almost a season's worth of Minutemen games at 85,000. Miles's second NFL start comes in Landover, Md., not far from where he spent a semester at the Naval Academy and where life threw him one of its first curves.

"I still use a lot of what I learned at the academy, but the military life wasn't for me," Miles says.

While Griffin won the Heisman Trophy this past year, Bengals rookie middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict won the booby prize of the 2012 draft and went from the bottom of the first round to the bottom undrafted.

But as Griffin has become what everybody expected, Burfict has been what no one expected and figures to get his first NFL start Sunday at a position he didn't begin learning until a week ago Thursday night.

"What happened in the past happened in the past. For me, what people portrayed me as at the draft, I totally wasn’t that guy," Burfict says. "It’s not like I could go and confront media people and say ‘You guys have got the wrong person.’ Whatever they put out there, they put out there. And whatever team got me, they will see the real Vontaze. I’m just totally the opposite of that."

Miles and Burfict hope to help the Bengals turn life around Sunday. Griffin leads the NFL's highest-scoring offense against a Bengals defense that has allowed an average of 435 yards in its first two games, many of them right down the middle of the field they'll be patrolling.

Miles is in the lineup because Taylor Mays got benched after the opener. Burfict has moved from the middle to WILL backer because Thomas Howard is lost for the season with an ACL injury sustained in practice 72 hours before last Sunday's win over Cleveland. The plays may be scripted, but nothing else is.

"They’re not 'me' guys; they just want to win," says Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, who raised Burfict and Miles before they graduated to scrimmage but still counts them as two of his core players. "They know what got them here. They earned their way on this team the hard way. It's good to see them get their chances."

Burfict and Miles are still grinding for Simmons, though, despite much more time from scrimmage. On Sunday, Miles played 13 snaps on punt and punt return (he had the last block on Adam Jones's 81-yard TD return on punter Reggie Hodges) to go along with his 46 scrimmage snaps, and Burfict had 10 snaps on special teams with his 22 regular plays.

"Whatever I can do to help the team," Miles says. "I get tired, but they say if you're giving it your best you're going to get tired."

Simmons isn't sure if those numbers are going to stick. The more the merrier, he hopes, because he believes the kicking game is only as good as a consistent lineup.

"We'll see how it goes. We won't play them so much that we get diminishing returns," Simmons says. "These are guys that won't say no. A guy like Burfict, he knew what kind of reputation he had and he's been nothing but great. I think he (embraced special teams) because he saw that's what was in front of him and it was his quickest way to contribute."

Burfict won't turn 22 until the day after he faces RG III, but he's already got the gift of the women in his life having his back.

His mother was supposed to see her son play in the NFL for the first time last month, but she couldn't leave Corona, Calif., at the last minute. When she was finally able to get on the plane a week ago Thursday night she phoned him and said, "I hear you're starting."

"She wouldn't tell me how she found out," Burfict says. "I mean, I just got off the phone with my coach and I had just found out. I don't know how she did that."

Meanwhile, his girlfriend Brandie has been quizzing him in the few minutes that linebackers coach Paul Guenther hasn't had him since getting the nod.

"(She'll) say a play out to me and I’ll tell her like ‘Oh, I blitz off the edge,’ or whatever my job is under the WILL," Burfict says. "She’ll tell me if I'm right, so that’s how I study football at home.

"I usually just hand her the playbook and she’ll tell me one of our plays."

Burfict was back at work within a half hour of getting linebackers coach Paul Guenther's call at about 7 p.m. Thursday and they found themselves in the Paul Brown Stadium gym as Guenther aligned chairs in different offensive formations to help him get the picture.

“We did it three days straight, 45 minutes each," Burfict says. "Like I said I need it, especially at WILL, since it is a new position for me, but it's helping me.”

Burfict never thought about starting this quickly. The idea was to back up Rey Maualuga at middle backer and go from there.

"When I first came in I just wanted to become a good teammate and learn the plays and especially being a Mike backer and having to set the front, know where the blitzes are coming from," Burfict says. "I was trying to focus on that. But not starting. I was just trying to take the backup spot behind Rey and learn from him this year and next year become a starting linebacker. But my number is called and I've got to be ready."

Those 72 hours before the Cleveland game are why the Bengals signed Burfict, love him and kept him. His ability to learn football with a highly instinctive game showed up when he turned out to be one of Sunday's few defensive bright spots.

On one telling play of how far Burfict has come, the overweight guy who ran the slowest 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine went step-for-step up the sidelines with the tight end early in the game last Sunday to force an incompletion.

"Last week a couple of the linebackers, we were running sprints on the sideline back and forth, just to keep our conditioning up," Burfict says. "I’m never going to say I’m in shape. I always need to push myself in practice because on the weekend, you’re mostly relaxing. You come in for practice on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; you just want to condition yourself for the game. That’s pretty much what I do.

"I’m not a 40 guy, but if you put somebody in front of me, I’ll chase them down. I saw him out of the corner of my eye. I saw him going upfield and had to take him. I pretty much caught up to him because he was a slower guy. I was happy he was slow.”

Burfict knows he has to chase down Griffin in a nice tidy matchup of free agent vs. No. 2 pick.

"I just pretty much hope I get a good hit on the guy," Burfict says. "Everybody (has) seen him in commercials and everything, if he starts to scramble I will be sure to come and get him."

Burfict ran into Griffin on an elevator at the combine and they introduced themselves, but the way he remembers it Griffin was talking to someone else.

"I'm pretty sure he forgot who I was, but he'll remember me on Sunday," Burfict says.

It's not bravado. It's not disrespect. It's simply how Burfict approaches the game.

"I'm not trying to challenge him; it's football," he says. "You've got to go out and play your fastest, your hardest. I expect the best out of him and I expect the best out of me."

It's like when he's talking about Fred Davis, the estimable Redskins tight end.

"He's just a regular tight end. When he comes to block me I am going to get off the block and make a play," says Burfict, but he could have been talking about any tight end, any blocker.

He says he can't be in awe, "especially playing linebacker. If you have the mentality of somebody can block you then something is wrong with you. But as me being a linebacker, somebody can block me but my mentality is I don't want (anybody) to block me."

He certainly knows what Griffin can do.

"He gets out the pocket very fast. He feels the blitz. He's not even looking at the receivers anymore," Burfict says. "He's most likely looking to get it to the sideline.

"He's a running quarterback, but he has an arm at the same time. He does a very good job of throwing deep balls in the middle."

It is the middle that has the Bengals worried. According to NFL stats, they are allowing an 82-percent completion percentage on balls over the short middle and have given up an average of nearly 20 yards on nine plays down the deep middle.

Miles had a hand in one of those plays Sunday when Browns wide receiver Greg Little scored Cleveland's last touchdown on a wide-open 24-yard touchdown catch.

"One of our underneath guys did a great job re-routing a guy and I thought he was out of it and I kind of lost track what was going on on the outside," Miles says. "I was looking at the quarterback's eyes and I should have been taking one final peek at that area."

No one doubts that Miles can pick it up quickly the more he plays because he's got the smarts. Once he came off the practice squad as a rookie in 2010, he picked up special teams quickly enough that he racked up 20 special teams tackles in his first 22 games during '10 and '11.

"He's smart, he understands football," Simmons says. "He plays fast, plays with a great deal of effort and finish. It's two things you can't coach. It's the time he's spending doing all the work and it all shows up."

Miles didn't leave the academy because of grades, where he recalls he carried a 3.2 that semester. It was a matter of wanting to enjoy a regular college lifestyle, but he says he kept some aspects of the discipline he learned in Annapolis. And it should help Sunday.

"When you think about a mobile quarterback, you think run first. But with (Griffin) it's just the opposite," Miles says. "Everything is pass first. You see him run all the way to the sidelines with his eyes still downfield and he still throws the ball back across the field. Everyone has to stay on his guy whether he leaves the pocket or not. As a safety, you have to read your keys and stay disciplined. Most of his big chunk plays have been right down the middle of the field. Off of play action right down the middle.

"You just have to work on your angles. Work on not trying to make the big play and forcing the big play. But being in the right position so when the big play happens you'll be in position."

It is the Heisman vs. The Minuteman.

"A hungry guy from Massachusetts," Miles says.

 

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