CINCINNATI – Linebacker James Harrison didn't need much time to think about the similarities between himself and Vontaze Burfict, whose locker is only a few feet away.
Both make a lot of game-turning plays. Both draw a lot of fine-worthy fouls.
"I see a little of him in me, especially with the fines," Harrison said, managing a slight smile.
The Cincinnati Bengals have seen one of their low-risk signings turn into one of the league's best finds, a quick and instinctive linebacker who is always around the ball and making tackles at an unmatched rate.
Burfict also has given glimpses of why every team in the league passed on him in the 2012 draft.
"I love the way Vontaze plays," defensive end Michael Johnson said. "It's contagious. It spreads. He's a very smart player, too. He plays extremely hard.
"He's a monster, straight up."
Last Sunday, Burfict had his finest game in his two seasons with the Bengals, who signed him out of Arizona State after the 2012 draft. He had 10 solo tackles, five assists, and forced a fumble he returned 13 yards for a touchdown during a 41-20 win over Cleveland. Burfict's touchdown was part of a 31-point second quarter that set a franchise record.
Burfict was honored as the AFC's defensive player of the week for his effort, which left Cincinnati (7-4) in control of the AFC North heading into its bye week.
The linebacker also had another penalty for unnecessary roughness against Cleveland, his sixth of the season. Defensive tackle Domata Peko was flagged for unnecessary roughness later in the game, too.
"I like to play with a fire," Burfict said. "One of our linebackers was getting pushed. I've got everybody's back on defense and if someone's pushing me, they've got my back. I retaliated and pushed him, and I think that set the tone.
"Everyone was like, 'OK, let's go. They want to play like that?'"
Coach Marvin Lewis has defended Burfict throughout the season, saying many of the penalties were unwarranted. He didn't defend Burfict's penalty for pushing a Browns player or his comments trying to justify it.
"We can't have those," Lewis said. "We've got to clean them up as a football team. This is not the WWF, and you don't get any points for retaliating.
"This is not acceptable, and it won't be acceptable. And if they don't fix it they won't play."
There's no way that Burfict won't play. Not with the way he's affecting games.
The 6-foot-1, 255-pound linebacker leads the NFL with 77 unassisted tackles and 118 combined tackles. He's made seven tackles in the backfield, broken up six passes, recovered two fumbles, forced a fumble, and gotten a sack and an interception.
Like every other NFL team, the Bengals knew he had immense talent. The question was whether he could channel it and stay within the rules.
At Arizona State, he was the Pac-10's defensive freshman of the year, starting nine games at middle linebacker. His unrelenting style resulted in big plays and lots of penalties. Burfict was flagged for more than a dozen personal fouls in his college career.
During a 2010 game, Burfict head-butted Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz. During his last season at Arizona State, he was benched in the second half of a game for picking up two personal fouls.
A subpar performance at the NFL combine gained him the label of a player who wasn't worth the risk. After the combine, he wrote letters to NFL teams, trying to change their minds.
When the Bengals passed on Burfict in the seventh round of the draft, Lewis called him and told him Cincinnati was interested in signing him if no one else took him.
And so it was a match. Burfict came to Cincinnati looking to show everyone that he could make an impact without making trouble.
He got a chance right away. Outside linebacker Thomas Howard got hurt in the season opener last year, creating an opening for Burfict. He started 14 games and ended the season leading the team in tackles. He also had one sack.
Burfict has started every game this season and helped the Bengals get through the loss of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has missed the last three games with a concussion and an injured left knee. Maualuga is expected back after the bye.
Cincinnati signed Harrison as a free agent from Pittsburgh, hoping he could give the Bengals another pass-rushing threat from an outside linebacker spot. He and Burfict dress nearby in a corner of the locker room.
Being around Harrison has made an impact on Burfict.
"He's a leader," Burfict said. "I crack jokes with him all the time, and I enjoy having him on the team.
"You know, sometimes he rubs off on me. Sometimes I feel like I'm in his element. I take the same energy he does and sometimes it makes me go crazy on the field."
Harrison had an interception against the Browns and returned it for an apparent touchdown, running through center Alex Mack to get into the end zone. The touchdown was negated by a blocking penalty on the return, but Cincinnati kept the ball and scored its first touchdown.
Other Bengals see Harrison's influence around the locker room, not only in Burfict's corner.
"I think it helps guys realize you don't need all the antics, you don't need all the craziness, just get out there and make a play and play the game with a passion and intensity and be really good at it," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "And that's what he does really well.
"So it's been a good example for everybody."
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