Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict is walked off the field… (Rob Carr / Getty Images )
Cincinnati Bengals weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict flunked the equivalent of a high-profile job interview during a disastrous NFL scouting combine last year.
Burfict ran the slowest 40-yard dash (5.09 seconds) of any linebacker prospect. He finished slower than several offensive linemen. He bench-pressed 225 pounds just 16 times, fewer than many defensive backs.
In interviews, he showed a lack of accountability for poor self-discipline on the field, after racking up 16 personal fouls in his final 26 games at Arizona State.
Burfict also told some teams at the combine that he had smoked marijuana, even before taking a mandated drug test he reportedly failed.
After so many poor decisions, Burfict at last did something smart. He wrote a letter to the Bengals and coach Marvin Lewis, as well as every other NFL team, asking for a chance.
After he went undrafted, Burfict got one in Cincinnati. The Bengals signed him to a modest three-year, $1.441 million contract that included a $1,000 signing bonus.
That small investment has paid major dividends.
Burfict has emerged as one of the top young defensive players in the AFC. He leads the NFL with 118 tackles, also recording an interception and a forced fumble. He has six more tackles than Buffalo Bills rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso.
Last year, the feisty linebacker started all but two games and led the Bengals with 127 tackles. He had 18 tackles in one game against the Ravens.
Known for his almost out-of-control playing style, Burfict was fined $31,000 for two incidents — hitting a defenseless receiver and striking an opponent in the groin — against the Green Bay Packers in Week 3. Burfict also mixed it up with the Ravens a few times during an overtime loss earlier this month at M&T Bank Stadium.
In the past, Burfict has made no apologies for his hard-nosed mentality. He attributes his no-nonsense mentality to his upbringing in Los Angeles. Burfict's father was a gang member and convicted drug dealer. His mother drove a bus, raising him and his brother by herself.
"What people portrayed me as at the draft, I totally wasn't that guy," Burfict told Cincinnati reporters. "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. I'm just totally the opposite of that."
Burfict had a season-high 15 tackles and a forced fumble he returned for a touchdown during a 41-20 victory over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday. He was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week, becoming the first Bengals linebacker to win the award since Brian Simmons did so eight years ago.
This week, Lewis said Burfict's play is reminiscent of retired Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
"He reminds me of Ray, much like Ray reminded me of [former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker] Greg Lloyd," Lewis, a former Ravens defensive coordinator, said during his weekly radio program. "Ray took that and ran with it. Vontaze has got exceptional ability and intelligence. It's like that lump of coal — I really believed there was a diamond there."
Browns' Mingo slowing down
Browns first-round outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo has hit a lull after a torrid start to his NFL career.
The former LSU star has just one sack in his past six games.
"I expect a lot from him, and I'm challenging him off the field, meaning extra stuff to study and do more for us,'' Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton told Cleveland reporters. "I'm throwing a lot more at him this week, also, to be accountable. We put a lot on the young man."
Drafted sixth overall, Mingo had sacks in each ohis first three NFL games after a bruised lung forced him to miss the team's first two games. He leads the team with four sacks.
"It's not going to be easy,'' Mingo told Cleveland reporters. "This is the NFL. We're going against tackles that are top of the league. … They're not going to make it easy. They're not going to let me hit the quarterback, because they don't get paid to let that happen."
Steelers' Brown hitting stride
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is having a stellar season, leading the NFL with 74 receptions for 952 yards and five touchdowns.
As successful as Brown has been, he'll be tested Sunday against Browns shutdown cornerback Joe Haden.
Haden intercepted two passes last week against the Bengals, returning one for a touchdown, as he limited Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green to two receptions for 7 yards.
"Whoever is out there, I'm going to be on my screws and ready to play," Brown told Pittsburgh reporters. "It should be a good matchup. He's a great talent."