Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in his Wednesday press conference that this is no time to be experimenting, but it appears that is exactly what the team is doing with safety Taylor Mays.
With only five linebackers on the roster after Emmanuel Lamur suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in last Thursday’s preseason finale, the Bengals have been using Mays to fill the void in nickel packages.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Mays said. “Maybe naturally for me it’s a little better because it’s more in the box. It could be a better position for me. I like the kind of plays that linebackers get to make. I just have to learn it fast and play fast.”
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Mays said the coaches had kicked around the idea of using him at linebacker before, so he wasn’t surprised when the plan engaged following Lamur’s injury.
“I think me and Eman (6-4, 220 pounds) kind of have the same body, so it just makes sense,” Mays said.
With James Harrison (SAM), Rey Maualuga (MIKE) and Vontaze Burfict (WIL) listed as the starters, the Bengals left themselves with only Vinny Rey and undrafted rookie free agent Jayson DiManche as backups when they elected to keep seven wide receivers and five linebackers on cutdown day instead of six each.
Knowing they had Mays available as a flex option likely factored into the decision. Now the question is how quickly Mays can adjust.
“Obviously it will be something a little bit new, but it goes along with our system as far as the rules and all of those things,” linebackers coach Paul Guenther said. “It’s a little bit of a different alignment, and he’ll be good at it.”
Guenther proved last year he can teach on the fly when starting WIL backer Thomas Howard suffered a season-ending ACL injury on the Thursday before the second game of the season. Guenther threw Burfict, an undrafted rookie free agent who had only played middle linebacker in college, into a crash course on the WIL position by using chairs in a gymnasium.
Burfict went on to start the next 15 games and lead the Bengals in tackles.
“I’ll see if I can coach him up, just like last year with Howard and Burfict,” Guenther said. “Same situation and really teaching him the same way as Vontaze. We’ve been watching Chicago for some time now and just understanding what they are doing with alignments and blitzes along with it. I think he’ll do real good in the game. I don’t think he’ll miss a beat.”
The Bengals had Howard in for a tryout Tuesday. Lewis declined to discuss how that went, but if Howard looked fully recovered and if Mays struggles Sunday in Chicago, the team could bring Howard back. A similar scenario played out in 2012 when Mays struggled at safety in the first few games, prompting the Bengals to dip into their past and sign Chris Crocker off the street.
But Mays said he is intent on doing everything possible to make sure the team doesn’t need to make a roster move next week.
“I’ve been here every day and in the gym, and I feel like I’ve been picking it up quick,” he said. “I feel good about it. Some stuff you have to learn on the field, but I have to get it done. I can play safety and some linebacker. I’m working being versatile for the defense.”