Embattled middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was brought back to the Cincinnati Bengals after briefly testing the free-agent market over the offseason. The move was not a popular one—many Bengals fans hoped the linebacker would find a new home.
Plenty of fans and pundits wondered what head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer saw in Maualuga. In fact, Lewis continued to praise his linebacker over the offseason. During an interview with Joe Reedy of USA Today, Lewis had this to say:
Rey has been a fine young player for us, and he continues to grow on and off the field. He is passionate about becoming a great player, and we're excited to have him back as we work with these signings to keep our defense together.
He is, as you will find out when this free agency period starts, that he's a lot better than what a lot of people give him credit for. 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.
Clearly, these two defensive masterminds saw something in Maualuga that not many others did. What could they have noticed about the middle linebacker that finished dead last (negative-26.3 grade) in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 2012 rankings?
Perhaps, they saw determination to get better. After watching Maualuga perform in the Bengals second preseason game against the Tennessee Titans, it appears as though the Bengals' staff could have been right.
If you think of Maualuga's performance in 2012 and ask yourself what his two worst attributes were, chances are you would come up with open-field tackling and coverage.
We only began to see a small sample size of his 2013 production this past Saturday, but so far he has seemingly overcome those deficits.
Let's take a look at two plays from this past game to really see how he may have drastically improved since last season.
It is no secret that Maualuga is known for missing quite a few open-field tackles over the course of a game. However, he may be bucking that trend after what he showed early in the game against speedy running back Chris Johnson this past week.
This play comes on a 1st-and-10 with Johnson in single-back formation and Maualuga lined up at MLB directly across the line of scrimmage.
Maualuga keeps his eyes on the backfield throughout the duration of the exchange. He slides to his right immediately as Johnson takes control of the football.
Showing great burst, Maualuga keeps up with Johnson as he attempts to get to the edge. Maualuga notices Johnson trying to turn the corner and immediately closes in on the running back. All that's left to do is make the tackle.
Using solid fundamentals, Maualuga wraps up both of Johnson's legs and takes him down immediately—the Titans did not gain a yard on the play.
This is the type of play that is expected of a good middle linebacker. This is also the type of play that Maualuga struggled mightily with last season. If he can shore up his tackling, he will be one step closer to being a very viable option in the middle of the Bengals' vaunted defense.
Last season, we saw tight ends beating Bengals linebackers in coverage time and time again. It almost seemed to be the Achilles' heel of the defense. Maualuga certainly played a huge part in that defensive deficiency.
This season, he looks ready to atone for his previous shortcomings as he displayed against the Titans over the weekend.
The Titans have a 3rd-and-2 inside their own territory. The Bengals defense looks to get off the field here. Maualuga is assigned to tight end Craig Stevens, who is lined up in the fullback position.
Titans quarterback Jake Locker runs a play-action pass. With his eyes in the backfield, Maualuga is not fooled and begins to shadow Stevens to the flat.
Stevens is Locker's first read on this play—the Titans expected an easy first down. However, Maualuga is in perfect position to keep Stevens short of the first-down marker which would force a fourth down.
Locker notices this and is forced to throw downfield to his second read. He completes the pass and the Titans get their first down; however, the conversion was way made much more difficult by Maualuga.
Again, this is only a small sample size of the level of play Maualuga is capable of producing. Of course, this needs to be seen on a more consistent basis to really begin to acknowledge the efficiency of this linebacker.
Currently, this same middle linebacker is now ranked 38th overall—out of 107 eligible middle linebackers—in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 2013 preseason rankings with a positive-0.8 grade.
So, has Maualuga really improved?
It may be too early to tell; however, the writing is certainly on the wall.
All screen shots courtesy of NFL Preseason Live.