Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is the perfect villain. That's what I hear, and when I turn on the tape, I can understand why. Just look at how he knocked out Antonio Brown in the AFC wild-card game last season.
You can't have that hit. Shoulder pad to the helmet at the worst possible time. The resulting penalty cost the Bengals a playoff win and contributed to Burfict landing a three-game suspension to start this season for repeated violations of player safety rules.
No one knows Burfict's intent on that particular hit. He plays fast. He plays hard. Guys can cross the line at times. That's how a lot of defensive players are wired. That doesn't mean they are malicious in how they play the game. Maybe he could have pulled up. Heck, maybe he could have avoided the hit all together, I guess.
But as Burfict returns to the field on Thursday night, this also needs to be said: I'd love to play with this dude because he can change the flow of the game. And I can tell you that a lot of other guys would too.
This is hard to understand, so let me explain:
As a defender, if you can physically intimidate the opponent, that will make every offensive player sit up a little straighter in the film room when you're next on the schedule. And it alters how opposing offenses practice and play -- because they know you're going to hit.
Burfict gives that to his team. He's going to shorten some arms of wide receivers who want to work the middle of the field. Everyone on the Miami Dolphins' offense will be aware of where Burfict is at all times during Thursday's contest in Cincinnati.
As a defensive back, you love that. It means some basket picks: balls that flutter into the air and land in your lap; free gifts because of that linebacker patrolling the middle of the field and delivering blows. Boom. And no one on offense wants to get close to a guy like that. That's when wide receivers start telling the quarterback to avoid those inside routes.
Look back to the Bengals' loss on Sunday to the Denver Broncos. Would Gary Kubiak's team have been able to put together that go-ahead, fourth-quarter drive with Trevor Siemian throwing slants, inside hitch routes and wide receiver screens if Burfict was running to the ball and driving through ball carriers? That's just something to think about here when we talk about the impact a physical player like Burfict can have.
What Burfict needs to understand is that the game has changed. And every player has to adapt to the new rules. Look at Luke Kuechly's hit on Demaryius Thomas over the middle in Super Bowl 50. That's a clean strike -- and I can promise you it stuck in the back of Thomas' mind all night.
The lesson? There's no substitute for physicality and intimidation -- but that physicality and intimidation need not draw 15-yard penalties and three-game suspensions.
It's a fine line, a tightrope defenders have to walk in this league on a weekly basis. You gotta hit or you won't last very long; and in 2016, you gotta do it cleanly or you won't last very long, either. Because of his history, Burfict will be watched closer than most. But as long as he's out there patrolling the middle of the field, his effect on his teammates and the Bengals' defense will be palpable.
Remember, defenses that can read, run, hit and intimidate dictate the tempo of the game. You can intimidate through execution, but it's still football. It also helps to have that guy who creates a little fear. Burfict is that guy.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.