CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 8: Nick Vigil #59 of the Cincinnati Bengals forces a fumble by David Njoku #85 of the Cleveland Browns during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 8, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
Photo: Kirk Irwin
Photo: Kirk Irwin

Bengals linebacker focused on Sunday, not future

The Cincinnati Bengals linebacker is in the last season of his four-year contract before becoming a free agent this offseason, and he views this week’s game against the Cleveland Browns (6-9) as one last chance to prove himself.

»RELATED: Bengals look to go out strong vs. Browns

Three weeks ago, Vigil helped limit Baker Mayfield to 192 yards passing – picking up his first interception this season and adding two pass deflections – but wasn’t able to keep Nick Chubb from topping 100 yards rushing en route to a 27-19 win for Cleveland. That will be his focus Sunday when the Browns come to Paul Brown Stadium for the season finale. Chubb leads the league with 1,453 rushing yards.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess. The Bengals’ linebackers have long been considered the weakness of the defense but Vigil has played a career-high 92 percent of the snaps and has a chance to complete his first full season since he became a starter in 2017.

»RELATED: Bengals options for top pick in draft

“You never know,” Vigil said of his future. “You don’t have a deal in place, so when the season is over, we’ll see how things go and see how it all plays out and then if I end up going to free agency, we’ll just see how that pans out. I just focus week to week — I don’t worry about it. It’s something I will worry about later on. Once the season is done we will figure it out.”

Vigil was limited by injuries the previous two seasons, but for the first time in a while, he’s finally felt healthy. He ranks second on the team with 107 tackles, trailing only safety Shawn Williams, and believes he’s been productive, especially as the defense improved the second half of the season.

The Bengals rank 30th allowing 399.1 yards per game – a number that reached as high as 435 at the season’s midpoint, but they haven’t been able to climb out of the basement in run defense while allowing 153.9 rushing yards per game.

“I feel like I’ve played pretty good football,” Vigil said of his contribution. “A couple games here and there I could have played better — you can always play better and there is always more you can do. I need to create more turnovers on defense, whether it’s interceptions or causing fumbles, but as a whole I think I’ve played pretty good football.”

Head coach Zac Taylor said he has seen progress from Vigil as the unit has started to play more consistently.

Vigil said the defense started feeling more comfortable as the season went along. The Bengals are playing with their fourth defensive coordinator in four years and third in two seasons with Lou Anarumo joining Taylor’s staff late in the offseason, and Vigil said it took some time to adjust to another new way of doing things.

The linebackers were called out specifically at one point when Taylor said they needed to step up, and the next day veteran Preston Brown was released. Since then, rookie third-round draft pick Germaine Pratt has been filling that role and continues to be a building block for next year. He’s played at least 70 percent of the defensive snaps in each of the last three games and has hit new highs in tackles each time, starting with eight, then 10 and 11.

“He kind of goes along with a lot of the young players we have, in that the more game experience they’re getting, the more it slows down,” Taylor said. “They’re becoming better communicators. That’s important to see as the season progresses. … You have seen from week to week his development progress.”

Pratt said getting more reps has helped him “see things faster and react faster.” He came in knowing the Bengals wanted to improve the middle of the defense but unsure where he would fit in as a rookie. Pratt just wanted to make an impact in whatever role he was given and now looks forward to his first full NFL offseason as a chance to get ready for a bigger leap in Year 2.

“I just want to keep getting better and carry that into the offseason and take everything I’ve learned into Year 2 to be able to take a bigger jump from Year 1, just learn from mistakes I made as a rookie and be more of an impact player for next year,” Pratt said. “A lot of us are going to have a chip on our shoulder because of how this season has gone, so we’re going to work hard to change the culture around here, and that’s going to drive us this offseason, but first we just want to finish strong and have some momentum to build from.”

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