Rey Maualuga: Are the Bengals Moving On?


Aug 28, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (58) stands on the sidelines against the Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown Stadium. The Cincinnati Bengals won 35-7. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more maligned Bengals in recent years has been their highest drafted linebacker, Rey Maualuga.  Many fans have called for the Bengals to move on from him while the team has steadfastly supported him.  Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Geoff Hobson regarding what former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had to say about Maualuga during the 2013 off-season when Maualuga was a free agent.

"“He is, as you will find out when this free agency period starts, a lot better than what a lot of people give him credit for,” said Zimmer, alluding to how defensive end Justin Smith became a Pro Bowler when he left Cincinnati. “I think that’s going to be what people are going to find out if he goes. If he’s not here people are going to miss him and say we should have had him. That’s how it works, like Justin Smith.”"

One issue with Zimmer’s statement is that when Smith left the Bengals, he changed to a 3-4 defense with the 49ers under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary.  This system benefitted Smith’s skill set and made him more effective despite his statistical consistency. And as far as “leaving” goes, Maualuga signed a very fair deal with the Bengals and never really tested free agency.

After resigning Maualuga in 2013 to a two-year extension, many fans expressed their displeasure; again preferring the team move on.  This year they may be getting what they asked for.

Last year, Maualuga played 540 of a possible 912 snaps (59.2%), which doesn’t account for the three games he missed due to injury.  This year he’s played in only 45 of a possible 156 snaps (28.8%).  It’s a small sample size and the Bengals haven’t played against a run oriented offense yet, but these numbers are telling; Maualuga’s strength is against the run.  The numbers are also telling of a few other realities.  The Bengals prefer to utilize the nickel set, which only requires the utilization of two linebackers; a preference which is only amplified when the Bengals face passing-oriented teams.  Maualuga’s struggles against the pass are well documented as he lacks the ability to defend receiving targets and to rush the passer.  The numbers also provide evidence of the the Bengals’ preference for versatile players.  Fellow linebacker Vincent Rey, the more versatile player between he and Maualuga, has seen a sharp increase in playing time this year as he’s been involved in 100 of the defense’s 156 snaps this year (64%).  This means the Bengals are using Rey much more often than Maualuga in the base set and to replace Burfict who’s been injured.

Rey Maualuga’s contribution to the Bengals has been admirable over the years.  It can be argued that he wasn’t utilized correctly with this team; he shined early in his career as a SAM backer, but struggled when asked to switch into the MIKE role.  But the more reasonable argument is that Maualuga is simply a bad fit for a team that has a penchant for versatility.  Inevitably, he would’ve been asked to take on multiple roles and Maualuga simply lacks the ability to do so.  His contract is one that this team isn’t going to be able to afford with so many young players to resign in the coming years (2 years/$6.5 million), so moving on from him seems all the more likely.

In the end, a parting of Rey Maualuga and the Bengals is probably the best move for all involved.  Maualuga would likely benefit from a change of scenery and a defensive scheme that better fits his ability.  He would likely find a larger role and hence, more money in the long run; at 27 years old, he still has much “in the tank.”  When the Bengals face the Titans this weekend much of this story may be told.  The Titans would prefer to emphasize the run over the pass, which would assumedly put Maualuga on the field more often.  Also with Vontaze Burfict likely sitting out the game, conventional wisdom would say that Maualuga would see an uptick in playing time.  Here’s a chart of the linebacker corps’ playing time through two games (credit Josh Kirkendall at Cincy Jungle for the stats; he does a great service for the Bengals community on a weekly basis).

[table id=13 /]

In the coming game, it will be really telling if Maualuga doesn’t see increased snaps. It will be even more telling if either DiManche, who has been training at SAM backer, Flowers, or Porter, if healthy, receive any playing time at all.  The game against the Titans will be important to all of the Bengals’ players, but no player may have more riding on this game than Rey Maualuga.