In Boley, Bengals get much-needed LB lift

CINCINNATI -- Three days after playing all 81 defensive snaps in Cincinnati's win over Green Bay, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict leaned back in his locker, sighed, smiled and eventually admitted the long afternoon made him "exhausted."

He wasn't sure, but he reasoned those may have been the most snaps he played in a single day in his football-playing life.

As we pause and think back to exactly when it was the Bengals played the Packers -- Week 3 -- we realize that maybe it wasn't a good sign for one of the defense's top players to so openly admit to being physically drained and beat up so early in the season. Then again, snap counts don't really matter in pro football. If you experienced even just one or two of the mini car wrecks these guys go through every Sunday, you'd probably be exhausted days later, too.

All of that said, though, if there was a silver lining to Burfict's comment, it was that, on a day Who Dey Nation remembers primarily for its defense's stout late-game play, the key contributor left as much as he possibly could out on the field; even in the early Week 3.

Burfict and other linebakers still will be required to leave their trail of blood, sweat and tears on Paul Brown Stadium's synthetic surface the rest of the season, but Tuesday's news that Cincinnati signed veteran outside 'backer Michael Boley, should at least help them catch a few extra breaths in between snaps.

In Boley, a ninth-year player who has had his share of off-field drama, the Bengals have gotten a much-needed defensive lift. It's one they have been waiting on for quite some time, too. With his addition, they also get an experienced player who, like recently signed free agent safety Chris Crocker, already knows defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's scheme after having spent two years with him in Atlanta.

Without Boley, the Bengals were rotating Burfict, Rey Maualuga and safety Taylor Mays into a nickel linebacker's spot that called for occasional pass coverage and constant collisions with tight ends. Although Burfict stayed on the field for other linebacker duties, Maualuga and Mays transitioned on and off the field more often than him, in addition to shifting into other secondary responsibilities when the Bengals weren't in their Nickel defense. They primarily employ it when facing spread, multi-receiver/tight end offensive sets. Against teams that don't spread the ball as often, Cincinnati's three-man linebacker rotation gets added stability with James Harrison's more regular presence.

As injuries begin filling the Bengals' two-deep depth chart and the season continues trudging along, the team has realized its nickel defense can't float by with its now antiquated system for another 12 regular-season weeks. In Cleveland on Sunday for example, the Bengals had trouble getting Mays into some of the nickel responsibilities he had filled earlier in the year because he also had to play safety in place of injured safety Reggie Nelson. There hasn't yet been word on when Nelson's return might come, but Mays' obligations in filling his shoes makes the depth at the crucial outside linebacker position thin.

So, in an effort to make that depth a little stronger, the Bengals dipped into the free agent pool and snatched up Boley before anyone else could.

They've had their eye on him for a while, too. A month ago this week, Boley was brought to Cincinnati for a tryout as the Bengals looked to replace Emmanuel Lamur. The outside linebacker who shifted into the nickel linebacker responsibilities on certain downs was lost for the season after suffering an injury in the final preseason game. So committed was Cincinnati to filling Lamur's spot that it brought in former Bengals linebacker Thomas Howard and Tyrone McKenzie for a tryout in the very same week.

Once it became clear the Bengals weren't favoring signing either player, they decided to give the Mays experiment a shot, while also seeing how well Burfict and Maualuga could hold up as virtually every down players.

With the team staring at a 2-2 record and needing a few tweaks on the defense's back end, though, the Bengals decided tinkering time was over. Now, they forcefully said Tuesday, was the time to get the linebacker position shored up once and for all.

Boley brings to the linebacker corps a sizable defender who has the athleticism to play with receivers and tight ends, and the hands to give the Bengals a defensive spark from time-to-time. He had three interceptions and four deflected passes in 16 games for the New York Giants last season.

Don't look for Boley to be an every-down player for the Bengals, but do look for him to be the type of defender who gives the unit a much-needed lift. He'll learn Zimmer's Bengals scheme quickly and adapt to it even faster.