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Burfict Returns To Arizona As One Of NFL’s Best

Posted by Dan Hoard on August 20, 2014 – 3:13 pm

Vontaze Burfict left Arizona State in a cloud of controversy after a junior season that included too many personal fouls, a benching in his final college game, and a disastrous showing at the NFL Combine that contributed to him going undrafted.

He returns to Phoenix this weekend as one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

“Going back to Arizona is exciting, but that’s not on my mind,” Burfict told me. “This will be the game where the ‘ones’ and ‘twos’ will play a little bit more, so I’m going in locked-in like it’s a regular week. I’m not worried about a homecoming or anything like that – it’s a business trip for me.”

And business is good for the NFL’s leading tackler last season.

Burfict forces fumble (440x314)

Despite being the Bengals youngest starter on defense, the 23-year-old Burfict has emerged as the team’s emotional leader on that side of the ball.

“He’s intense and everybody feeds off of his energy,” said defensive end Robert Geathers. “He’s a football-smart guy and when you’re prepared like that and have his energy, it doesn’t matter how old you are.”

“If you don’t want to play with a guy like that next to you, I don’t know what to tell you,” said safety Reggie Nelson. “I love playing next to him.”

“He’s as confident as any player I’ve ever seen at any level, and that’s what really impresses me,” said linebacker Jayson DiManche. “You’ll never know if and when he makes a mistake out there because he’s always going so fast and playing so hard. His attitude and effort level are off the charts. That’s something as a young linebacker that you try to emulate. It’s crazy because Vontaze is actually younger than me.”

Burfict leads defense (440x284)

Burfict’s intensity level extends to the practice field where he could often be seen jawing with offensive players during training camp as it were the Super Bowl instead of a routine drill.

“You have to have fun,” said Burfict. “In training camp you’re with the guys almost 40 days straight and it gets old around day five. So you want to make it competitive and have fun with it and talk crap. When I talk to Andy, Gio, BenJarvus – it spices things up. You don’t think about the reps, you just think about competing and trying to win that rep. I feel like bringing a bit of an edge and talking a little trash makes us play better and faster.”

“All of the great ones pretty much have that personality,” said cornerback Darqueze Dennard. “Lawrence Taylor…Ray Lewis…you see the passion in all of that barking and hollering and you see that in Vontaze. I love it and I think the rest of the guys appreciate that. He motivates guys and gets them going. When you see a player who is running around having fun and screaming and hollering after he makes plays, it makes you want to go out there and have fun with him.”

Burfict played in his first Pro Bowl last year and intercepted an Andrew Luck pass in his team’s win. His guests in Hawaii included fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

“I wouldn’t be able to make plays without Rey,” said Burfict. “He helped me learn the playbook and now it’s my turn to try to pass it on to other guys.”

“When I heard that he made the Pro Bowl, I almost broke down crying,” said Guenther. “The first time that he walked into my meeting room I said, ‘Just do everything that I ask you to do and be where you need to be.’ He did everything to the utmost. To make the Pro Bowl in his second year after everything that kid’s gone through and to be out there in Hawaii to celebrate with him was such an honor. It’s something that I will always remember.”

Vontaze is entering the final year of his rookie contract and while the Bengals will control his rights next season as a restricted free agent, the team would undoubtedly prefer to sign Burfict to an extension before reaching that point.

Now that the Andy Dalton megadeal is done, does Burfict think he’s next?

“I don’t know,” said Burfict. “It’s not on my mind. If it does come it’s God-blessed. If I just work hard it will possibly come.”

(Shortly after this story was published, the news broke that the Bengals have reached an agreement on a contract extension with Burfict.  It is reportedly a 4 year/$20 million deal that will pay him $7.6 million this year).

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Hewitt Opening Eyes In First NFL Camp

Posted by Dan Hoard on August 13, 2014 – 2:57 pm

In East Lansing, Michigan it’s known as “The Stop.”

Elsworth flying (440x293)

With 1:46 remaining in last year’s Rose Bowl, Michigan State led Stanford 24-20 when the Cardinal went for it on 4th-and-1 at the 34 yard line. As soon as the ball was snapped, Spartans linebacker Kyler Elsworth made a flying leap over the line of scrimmage to nail the Stanford fullback for no gain to seal the victory for Michigan State (click here to watch the play).

“They’ve got pictures everywhere in East Lansing of Elsworth jumping over the offensive and defensive lines,” said Bengals rookie and former MSU star Darqueze Dennard. “It was crazy. It’s a big play in Michigan State history.”

NCAA Football 2014: Rose Bowl Michigan State vs Stanford JAN 01

Ironically, the Stanford player who was stopped on 4th-and-1 was Bengals rookie Ryan Hewitt.

“It was a great play,” said Hewitt. “I think my neck might still be a little sore from that one.”

Three of Hewitt’s fellow rookies played for Michigan State in that game – Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, and Dan France – but Ryan says they haven’t busted his chops about “The Stop” or the final score.

“We’re on the same team now, so this isn’t the time to do that,” said Dennard. “But if Michigan State and Stanford actually play again, I might bring it up.”

While Dennard is a lock to make the Bengals 53-man roster after being drafted in the first round, Hewitt is also making a strong bid to stick despite being signed as an undrafted free agent. Ryan is being used as an H-back (fullback/tight end hybrid) and has frequently lined up with the first string offense.

Hewitt vs Chiefs (440x278)

“He’s earned it – we’re not giving anybody anything,” said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. “He’s earning an opportunity to play with the first group and that’s kind of where he is right now. But he has to fight like heck to stay there.”

“I think Ryan has really done a nice job for us,” said Marvin Lewis. “He’s handled things well. He’s playing tight end/H-back/fullback whatever you want to call those positions we have and he’s handled it well both physically and mentally. I think as a receiver he’s done a nice job. As an interior blocker he’s done a good job. I really think he’s got a bright future.”

Hewitt began his college career as a tight end but switched to fullback and started at that position for his final three seasons. He was frequently used as an outlet receiver out of the backfield and finished his college career with 59 catches for 473 yards and 6 TD.

Bengals west coast scout Steven Radicevic liked what he saw of Hewitt at Stanford and Cincinnati reportedly gave Ryan a $10,000 signing bonus – the most of any of the team’s college free agents this year. Hewitt knew that the Bengals didn’t have an established fullback, but didn’t realize that he would be used in a dual role.

“It was kind of a transition that came out of the blue – I wasn’t really expecting it – but it’s something that I embraced and I’m thankful for the opportunity,” said Hewitt.

Ryan says that he elected to go to Stanford for academics more than football, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he’s been able to quickly learn the Bengals’ playbook at multiple positions.

“We ran a very similar offense at Stanford with a lot of the same terminology, so that’s helped the transition,” said Hewitt. “But it is difficult. You have to spend a little extra time studying to make sure that you know both positions so that when you get put in at either spot you know what you’re doing.

“But I pride myself in knowing what I’m doing and making sure that I’m in the right spot and right alignment. That’s something that I work on every day.”

“He’s a smart kid and I think he has a burning desire to be good,” said Jackson. “He has the characteristics that we look for. He needs to continue to grow and play well within our system and we’ll see where this thing goes.”

The 23-year-old from Denver is a sturdy 6’4”, 254 pounds and Coach Lewis says he expects Hewitt to get more powerful.

“I think as he grows and he’s fortunate enough to stay around here, I think by next year we’ll have a real, real big physical man,” said Lewis. “He’s going to be a big person.”

Ryan got stopped last January in Pasadena, but it appears that he’s just getting started in Cincinnati.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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So Who Is Matt Scott?

Posted by Dan Hoard on August 8, 2014 – 8:34 am

Before Thursday’s preseason opener in Kansas City, most Bengals fans probably could not name the third quarterback on Cincinnati’s depth chart.

Now after throwing two touchdown passes, leading the team in rushing, sprinting for a 2-point conversion, and puking on the field (very visibly I might add), Matt Scott is getting recognition from coast-to-coast.

Scott running (440x309)

The 23-year-old former Arizona Wildcats QB completed 7-of-11 passes for 66 yards, ran 6 times for 68 more, and delivered the first of his TD strikes immediately after losing his lunch.

“I felt pretty good,” said Scott (referring to his play and not his stomach). “Obviously, there are still things I need to improve upon every day. There were a lot of negative plays that we need to get better on.

“Until I do that, I really won’t be content with my game. So I’ve got to watch the film, get to work this week, and see where I can improve.”

Scott appeared in four preseason games with Jacksonville last year before spending the season on the Jaguars’ practice squad. He only completed 45% of his passes in those games without no touchdowns and 1 INT and says he’s much more comfortable in his second NFL camp.

“Last year my head was spinning,” Matt told me. “I was still trying to pick things up and adjusting to the game speed.

“It’s night and day. I think last year I didn’t have a great grasp of the offense yet and I really didn’t understand the things we were trying to do offensively to be honest. But I worked at it all season, and coming to Cincinnati, I’ve learned a lot from Ken Zampese and Hue Jackson. They’re helping me to elevate my game to the next level so it’s been great working with them so far.”

After being timed at 4.69 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, Scott drew comparisons to former Bengals backup quarterback Josh Johnson. Matt’s speed was evident in Thursday’s 41-39 loss to the Chiefs when he took off on a 25-yard scramble for the team’s longest running play of the night.

“They were playing a lot of 2-man out there and in that coverage, nobody is accounting for the quarterback,” said Scott. “So it’s good to take off every now and then and get some easy yards with your feet.

“I’m going to stand back there comfortable in the pocket, go through my reads, and if nobody is open, I’m not going to hesitate to run.”

Scott started 17 games at the University of Arizona where he competed for playing time with current Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. After earning a spot on the Jaguars’ practice squad as an undrafted free agent last year, Matt hoped to refine his quarterback skills but didn’t get many opportunities.

“Honestly I didn’t get a whole lot of reps in Jacksonville during my time on the practice squad,” said Scott. “I helped out any way I could and did anything they needed me to do. We had a bunch of receivers go down last year in Jacksonville, so I was helping out on the scout team running routes. I’m a team player and if there’s anything I can do to help the team, then that’s what I’m going to do.

“It was tough trying to play quarterback at the same time that I was trying to help out the team at receiver. But I did anything that I could do to help the team and I think they really respected that about me.”

After being waived by Jacksonville in May, the California native was signed by the Bengals the following day. With fifth round draft pick A.J McCarron yet to get on the field in training camp due to a sore shoulder, Scott figures to see plenty of preseason action behind Andy Dalton and Jason Campbell.

“Being the third quarterback coming in, any time you get in the game is good and you want to make the best of any time that you’re in there,” said Scott. “Obviously you don’t know what’s going to happen and there are a lot of things that are out of your control. So you want to go out there are perform to the best of your ability.”

We’ll see what he does for an encore a week from Saturday when the Jets come to Paul Brown Stadium. Here’s hoping the only person that has intestinal distress is New York’s defensive coordinator.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Burke Is The Bengals Journey Man

Posted by Dan Hoard on August 2, 2014 – 10:07 am

Film study with players is a big part of an NFL coach’s job. But Cincinnati’s new linebackers coach Matt Burke doesn’t strictly put X’s and O’s on the screen. At one point this spring, his players saw Burke take a 134 meter leap off of the Nevis Highwire Platform in New Zealand – the third highest bungee jumping platform in the world (you can see the video here).

Nevis bungee (322x440)

“I made all of the rookie linebackers introduce themselves to their teammates and show a video clip, and since I’m a new guy here I showed them that,” said Burke.

“That was kinda scary,” said Emmanuel Lamur. “I couldn’t do it. He has a lot of guts – that’s for sure.”

The Dartmouth-educated Burke has a wide variety of adventures to share with the Bengals’ linebacker corps. Since becoming an NFL assistant under Jeff Fisher with the Titans in 2006, Matt has traveled all over the world including stops in Belize, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Finland, Guatemala, Honduras, Iceland, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Sweden, and Thailand.

Burke with monk (440x293)

“We took vacations and camped out when I was younger, but the first time I left the country was actually after my first year in the NFL,” said Burke. “It was the first time I had any money after college and I went to Ireland with a buddy. That’s all it took. From then on, I’ve taken one or two trips every year now.

“That’s about my only expense for the year. We’re here 90 hours a week during the season, so you really don’t have any time to spend money. So I spend my money taking a big trip and seeing the world.”

“He’s a lot braver than I am,” said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “It’s his free time and as coaches we don’t get a lot of it.”

The coaches’ best vacation opportunity comes between the end of OTAs in late June and the start of training camp in late July. This year, Burke grabbed his backpack and headed nearly 8,000 miles from Cincinnati.

Burke at altitude (330x440)

“I went to Nepal for two weeks to hike along the Everest Trail,” Matt told me. “I went by myself, but it was through an outfitting company so there were four other guys and we had about 10 Sherpas with us.

“It was definitely one of the more strenuous trips that I’ve taken, but I can’t sit still for too long. I just really like getting out and seeing things and sometimes you have to work to see the good stuff. For me it’s about getting away. There’s not a lot of cell phone reception up in the Himalayas.”

Burke says that his exotic excursions have helped him as a coach.

“Our profession at a base level is understanding people, motivating players, and being able to relate to different types of people,” he said. “If you look at the linebacker room, they’re from all over the country and have different backgrounds. I find that when I’m out traveling, I meet all sorts of people from different parts of the world and you get a better understanding of human nature.

“But honestly for me, it’s a reset as much as anything. It helps my coaching because I can come back here for the season a little bit more refreshed mentally than I normally would be.”

There have been a few scares along the way including the time in Cambodia when he thought he was being kidnapped by a cab driver. It’s probably also safe to assume that Burke is the only Bengals coach who has been inches away from a live Bengal Tiger.

Burke with tiger (440x330)

“When I was in Thailand, I actually got to go into the cages with some of the tigers there,” said Burke. “They have a zoo-type setup where you can go in and pet the tigers and stuff. I had to do it. I got my heart rate up a little bit there. I just like trying that stuff.”

So what’s next on his itinerary?

“When the season ends and things have settled down and we get our calendar for the offseason, I’ll start looking at it,” said Burke. “Things start popping into my mind and I decide what kind of craziness that I want to get into.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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