CINCINNATI (AP) — The Bengals aren’t sure how many plays they’ll get out of linebacker Vontaze Burfict in his first game back from a league suspension.
They know that no matter what the number, it’ll likely make a difference.
Burfict sat out the first three games for his repeated illegal hits, including one during the Bengals’ latest first-round playoff loss. His hit to receiver Antonio Brown’s head drew a penalty that set up Pittsburgh’s last-minute field goal for an 18-16 win at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals (1-2) had their defense shredded during a 29-17 loss to Denver on Sunday, with Trevor Siemian throwing a career-high four touchdown passes.
Cincinnati hosts the Dolphins (1-2) on Thursday night needing something — or somebody — to get the defense turned around.
Coach Marvin Lewis said the defense felt different when Burfict went onto the field for a light practice on Tuesday.
“You feel it as soon as he walks on the field,” Lewis said. “His command of things is excellent.”
Burfict is known for his grasp of the defense and his innate ability to read plays and get to the ball. The question is whether he can rein in his propensity for illegal hits.
The linebacker has been repeatedly penalized and fined during his career. The NFL’s three-game suspension gave notice that his behavior won’t be tolerated. Although Burfict insists that he won’t change his style of play, the coaching staff has talked to him about his decisions on the field. They’ve prepared him for opponents trying to goad him.
Burfict also has had concussions because of his head-first style of play, something else that the coaches have tried to change.
“He knows,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “We’ve talked at length about all that stuff. I’m sure he’s aware of what’s at stake.
“I still want him to be an aggressive player. I don’t want any linebackers being passive. But again, at the same time, people are going to be looking for him, so he’s got to understand that and do it the right way. Hopefully he learned his lesson off what happened.”
Burfict could get a significant number of plays. Last season, he missed the first six games while recovering from offseason knee surgery. He returned for a 16-10 win at Pittsburgh, had solo tackles on each of the first two plays, and was on the field for nearly half of the defensive plays.
Burfict said he’s in better physical condition this time because he’s not returning from an injury. He worked out on his own during the suspension.
“This is totally different,” Burfict said. “I was coming off an injury last time. I’ve had more time to condition and work out. I feel I can play a full game, but it’s up to them. They said if I look tired, they’re going to pull me out.”
Notes: TE Tyler Eifert said his ankle feels strong after a full week of limited practices. Eifert had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left ankle — injured during the Pro Bowl — and wasn’t able to practice until last week. “I’m super eager and excited, too,” Eifert said. Lewis was noncommittal again on Tuesday about whether Eifert will play against the Dolphins. If he does, it would be in a limited role. … CB Dre Kirkpatrick was held out of practice for a second straight day because of a hamstring injury suffered on Sunday. Kicker Mike Nugent fully practiced — he suffered a shoulder injury while making a tackle on Sunday but finished the game.
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