The bad news for the Cincinnati Bengals is that linebacker Vontaze Burfict has a history of being unavailable for the start of the season, missing the first six games in 2015 due to injury and the first three in 2016 and 2017 due to suspensions.
The good news is that Burfict isn’t the type of player who needs a few games to ramp up to full speed.
“I’m not sure if they’ll throw me in hot water on Sunday and make me play the whole game, but I’m ready for whatever,” Burfict said Wednesday after practicing for the first time since returning to the team Monday.
“Once things start being competitive, I’m pretty sure I’m going to want to stay in, but it’s up to the coaches,” he added. “I’m excited to be back with my teammates competing. Excited for Sunday.”
Burfict’s coaches and teammates are equally excited, hoping the linebacker will give them a needed spark in Cleveland after a disappointing 0-3 start.
“Obviously he’s one of our best players, so it’s good to get him back,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “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.”
Two years ago when Burfict missed the first six games while recovering from offseason microfracture surgery, the Bengals started 6-0 and the plan was to ease him into things when he returned to the field at Pittsburgh.
But it didn’t work out that way.
“The plan in the Pittsburgh game was to play a certain amount (of snaps), (like a) pitch count,” Guenther said. “Rey Maualuga got hurt in pregame, so I was like, ‘Hey, do you think you can couple more more snaps?’ ”
Burfict played 48 percent of the defensive snaps and finished tied for second on the team with five tackles, one of which resulted in Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell’s season-ending knee injury that turned the already reviled Burfict into Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh.
Last Burfict missed the first three games following his first suspension for repeated violations of the NFL’s player safety rules, culminating with the hit on Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown in the 2015 wild-card playoff loss.
Burfict returned on a short week for a Thursday night game against Miami and played 76 percent of the snaps with three tackles and a pass defended.
The Bengals stood by Burfict after the first suspension and they doubled down this time by not only helping him get it reduced from five games to three, but signing the volatile leader of the defense to a three-year, $38.7 million extension three days before he had to sit out his first game.
Burfict said the new contract makes him feel as though the organization has his back.
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“I give my blood, sweat and tears out on the field,” he said. “It’s vice-versa. I appreciate everything they do for me and my family and like I said, let’s go get a win on Sunday.”
Burfict’s presence is one that will be felt beyond the defense.
“He is a guy that does bring the energy,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “Anytime you get to add a player like that to your team, it is going to help us out. I am glad to have him back.”
Cleveland rookie quarterback De Shone Kizer said he’s fully aware of Burfict’s history of illegal hits, but it’s not something he’s going to focus on.
“I’m sure that after this little time off that he learned somewhat of a lesson,” Kizer said. “But if he hasn’t, I just have to make sure that I’m protecting myself.”