Through two games, the Bengals have one of the NFL’s worst defenses, #30 to be exact, a far-cry from the top-10 units Mike Zimmer has been able to shuffle out every year since he became the defensive coordinator. Much of the blame has been place on the play of middle-linebacker Rey Maualuga, who continues to miss tackles, take bad angles to ball carriers, and failing to shed blocks whenever blockers get any kind of leverage on him. He may need to find a job at Ihop, because he gets pancaked more than any linebacker I’ve ever seen. That hasn’t stopped Zimmer from keeping faith in him, though he does know he has to make significant improvements:
He’s got to make some more plays in the open field. That would be the biggest thing. He’s handling the things he’s doing well defensively, as far as what he needs to do and the interpretation of what we’re doing. But he’s got to make more plays. He can be more productive in the open field in getting guys on the ground. He’s got to play in a little better leverage position, understanding where his fit is and where he needs to be. How to play the block, how to shed the block. If the block is up on him, what are we going to turn the football back to? So mechanically, he’s got to play better.
To make matters worse for Rey, he didn’t exactly come into the season with the greatest amount of fanfare after he was charged for his second alcohol-related arrest in a two-year span this past Spring. Speculation arose that the Bengals would begin their search for a replacement for the troubled middle linebacker. Going into April’s NFL Draft, the Bengals were rumored to be heavily interested in Boston College MLB Luke Kuechly, who was actually a two-time All Greater Catholic League selection at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati.
Despite the offseason turmoil, Zimmer continued to support Rey and believed he would become the potential star he has flashed at times:
He’s got the ability to do everything he needs to do. He’s football smart, he loves the game. He’s competitive; he never wants to make a mistake, maybe to a fault. He thinks about way too many things. He’ll come and ask me questions that are just so … and I’ll say “Just tackle the guy with the ball. That’s what you do well. Do that.’ He can make some unbelievable plays. We’ve just got to get him to be more consistent at doing those things.
Zimmmer also attributed Rey’s late-season struggles last season to an ankle injury he suffered on October 13th during practice:
He was playing good enough. I think it bothered him when he got hurt. It definitely had an effect on him. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. I can see the things he can do on a semi-consistent basis. How good he can be. If he can be more consistently good, then he’d be a really, really good football player. That’s our expectations of him. Don’t be great on one play and be average on the next.
To Rey’s credit, he was playing significantly better prior to the injury. Before the sprain, Maualuga was averaging 7.6 tackles per game. When the injury occurred, he missed the next three games, and even when he returned, his average dropped to 6.25 tackles per game. While its nice to think an injury hindered Rey from reaching his full potential, there haven’t been any reported injuries with him this year, so maybe this is the best Rey Maualuga we are going to see. Fortunately for the Bengals, he is in the midst of a contract year, so they have no commitment to him beyond this season, and if he continues to struggle, the team can simply move on and try to find his replacement.