Katherine Terrell, ESPN Staff Writer 358d

Vontaze Burfict's return could energize winless Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict came out of the locker room after practice Wednesday, put on a ball cap and assessed the group of reporters waiting for him.

"Three minutes!" he said, before he was reminded by a Bengals staff member that he had already agreed to speak for five.

Burfict is abrupt and unapologetic, a player described by Marvin Lewis as someone who can simultaneously make him want to pull his hair out and laugh at the same time.

It's not surprising that he can be both.

"Obviously he's one of our best players, so it's good to get him back," said Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "He's a good, emotional leader. He knows the defense inside and out. It's nice to have him back. We can use him in a lot of ways. He's a versatile guy. He's a big part of what we do."

The winless Bengals have welcomed Burfict back with open arms, likely hoping for some sort of spark that will end their losing streak.

"He’ll add a lot of energy," Lewis said.

Burfict hopes his competitive nature can bring an accountability to the defense and give the unit a new set of eyes.

"If I know somebody messes up on defense, I feel like I'm the person who has to come tell them what happened and they'll let me know and I'll tell them let's get it right next time," Burfict said. "Or even the same thing with me, if I mess up someone like George [Iloka] or Geno [Atkins] or Carlos [Dunlap] is coming to me and making sure it's corrected. We just hold each other accountable, and I feel like it starts with me."

Burfict is the heart and soul of the defense, and the Bengals proved how much they valued him when they gave him a three-year extension worth more than $34 million on Sept. 8.

"I give my blood, sweat and tears out on the field. It's vice versa," Burfict said regarding the new contract. "I appreciate everything they do for me and my family and like I said, let's go get a win on Sunday."

That contract was signed while Burfict was serving a three-game suspension for a preseason hit the Bengals felt was legal and the NFL felt was "consistent with [his] pattern of egregious safety-related violations."

Burfict has been brilliant when on the field and performing at his peak, but hasn't played a full season since 2014. This is the third consecutive season the Bengals have started without him.

In 2015 he missed the first six games after microfracture surgery and also missed three games while suspended last year.

With that in mind, the Bengals put a safety net into his new contract, putting most of the money into base salary and per-game roster bonuses. If Burfict isn't active on game day, he'll lose the bonus.

Burfict's new contract certainly puts a lot on his shoulders, but he's already proven how valuable he can be

Between 2012 and 2016, the Bengals gave up 4.03 yards-per-rush and 6.2 yards-per-pass with Burfict compared to 4.51 yards-per-rush and 7.0 yards-per-pass without him.

The Bengals are 8-6 without Burfict since 2015 and 10-10-1 with him, although the 0-3 start largely rests on the shoulders of the offense this year. They'll be looking to get their first win against former Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who knows just what Burfict can do.

"Vontaze is the ultimate player for that defense. He is kind of the straw that stirs the drink there," Jackson said. "I have a fondness for Vontaze because of the way he plays the game. He’s a true professional. Loves football. Plays the way anybody would want any linebacker to play. And obviously, they are getting back a really fine football player and adding that to a really good defensive football team."

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