Vontaze Burfict's return timely with Bengals struggling on defense

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin didn’t hesitate to pinpoint the one thing the team must improve on going into Week 5.

“We need to get off the field on third down,” he said. “That's the most glaring thing we have to do. We could save ourselves a lot of angst, a lot of problems, if we get off the field on third down.”

He might get some help this week when linebacker Vontaze Burfict returns to the lineup.

“He’s excited to be back playing football. He will give us a lift of energy, excitement and detail,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

Burfict is returning from a four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy, and he’s likely to see his first extended action since Dec. 4, 2017, against the Steelers. Burfict suffered a concussion in that game, and although he returned to play against the Lions on Dec. 24, he injured his shoulder early in that game and didn’t play the rest of the season.

His return couldn’t be more timely.

“It means everything to have Tez back,” said Bengals middle linebacker Preston Brown, who is in his first year with the team. “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.”

The Bengals’ defense ranks last in the NFL in third-down conversion rate, and opponents are converting 57.4 percent of their third-down attempts. While the Bengals have gotten off to a 3-1 start, their success on offense has somewhat masked the defensive problems.

“We definitely have to do better on third down,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “I definitely feel like getting Vontaze back is going to help us out tremendously. That's something we've got to work on in practice.”

Austin said the third-down issue can’t be pinpointed to just one thing. Players attributed some of the problems to missed assignments after the Panthers game. The team is also very young in several areas on defense, with second-year linebackers Hardy Nickerson and Jordan Evans getting significant time on defense due to Burfict’s absence and an injury that caused Brown to miss two games.

“We have to tighten up the coverage on the back end, because the D-line is doing a great job getting sacks each and every week -- we just have to find a way to give them more time and they'll have more sacks,” Brown said.

That’s where Burfict can help. Burfict’s teammates often have said he’s like a coach on the field, and Burfict describes himself as a vocal leader.

“He studies a lot. He knows everything they’re going to do. He’s not the fastest, but he finds ways to get there fast enough to beat them,” Brown said.

Burfict jumped right back into things following suspensions in 2016 and 2017, but even if he plays limited snaps, his presence and ability to diagnose situations on the field should help the younger players.

“Just my little two cents can help,” Burfict said. “But Preston is a great linebacker and ... he understands the game as well. Two minds are better than one.”

A lot of things have changed on the Bengals’ defense since Burfict last played. Longtime defensive coordinator Paul Guenther departed. Austin hasn’t gotten much time to work with Burfict, who didn’t play in the preseason with an ankle injury.

There might be an adjustment period while they figure each other out, but neither Austin nor Burfict seems too concerned.

“Football is football. The playbook is the playbook. Your man is your man,” Burfict said. “It’s similar but very different on defense. Especially playcalls that I would expect Paulie to call. T.A., it’s obviously two different minds. I just have to get used to his calling and understand what he’s calling for. That’s what I knew Paulie G. for. I knew why he was calling the plays and understanding what he’s expecting. So I just have to get used to T.A. and why he’s calling things and stuff like that. It’s going to happen, just give me a couple of games.”