Mike Zimmer helped bring Vontaze Burfict into the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2012. He championed the fast, smart and uber-aggressive linebacker. And then he brought out the very best in him a year later when Burfict made his only Pro Bowl and was second-team All-Pro in Zimmer’s last year as Bengals defensive coordinator.
In other words, the Vikings coach is a big fan of the current middle linebacker for the Raiders, whom the Vikings will face Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
And yet, Burfict’s sullied reputation as one of the league’s dirtiest players caused even Zimmer to send a message to Oakland and the league office via Wednesday’s news conference.
Beware the Burfict.
“We better make sure the officials know he has to play clean,” Zimmer said after praising Burfict’s skills and intelligence.
Told what Zimmer said, Raiders coach Jon Gruden said, “Ah, I get tired of hearing that, really.
“Burfict’s played for us for two games. He hasn’t had any penalties,” he added. “So, I don’t know about all that. He’s had a bull’s-eye on him in his career in Cincinnati, and I’m sure the referees are looking out for him. I don’t think the refs need any more help than they already have.”
Burfict has been suspended three times for 10 games in his eight-year career. He got a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs last year, a three-game suspension for a hit on a defenseless player in 2017 and a three-game suspension for probably the most infamous of his transgressions — the hit on a defenseless Antonio Brown in the 2015 postseason.
Burfict also has been fined nearly $300,000, most of it for illegal acts against opponents. That includes $75,000 for stomping a leg, $25,000 for twisting an ankle, $21,000 for spearing, $21,000 for hitting a defenseless player and $10,000 for striking a groin. The last three came in 2013, Zimmer’s last year in Cincinnati.
Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said Burfict doesn’t concern him more than any other hard-hitting defender.
“To be quite honest, anytime I’m going across the middle my head is on a swivel,” he said. “The first concussion I got in my career was [the Bears’] Lance Briggs hitting me across the middle because my head wasn’t on a swivel. Nothing illegal, nothing dirty about it. That’s just the game that we play.”
But isn’t Burfict notorious for taking it beyond that point, Rudy?
“He’s been suspended,” Rudolph said. “He’s been fined for the things that he’s done.”
In other words, he has paid his debt.
“I think he’s learned from that stuff and been a pretty clean football player recently,” Vikings receiver Adam Thielen said. “I just think that’s his competitiveness. We’ve all lost our emotions at times.”
Running back Dalvin Cook has no worries either.
“It’s just me going out there and playing fast,” said Cook, “and making him play at my speed.”
From a football standpoint, the Raiders jumped on Burfict when the Bengals released him this past spring. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther worked under Zimmer as a position coach in Cincinnati, kept Zimmer’s defense when he succeeded him in 2014 and brought it to Oakland in 2018.
They also signed Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner in hopes of turning around the league’s worst scoring defense from 2018. This year, they have played eight quarters and given up a total of 16 points over seven of them.
As for that other quarter, well, they gave up 28 points in the second quarter of last week’s 28-10 loss to the Chiefs in Oakland. Reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes threw for 276 yards and touchdowns of 42, 42, 27 and 39 yards in that quarter alone.
“We played pretty good,” Gruden said. “I don’t know when you guys [the Vikings] play Mahomes, but some of these throws that he makes, the coverage is pretty good. … It’s like when Tiger Woods makes a 40-foot putt, what are you going to do? You just shake your head.”
Rudolph said that second quarter was like watching a film cutup of deep passes.
“It was just deep ball after deep ball after deep ball after deep ball,” he said. “But you’ll be mistaken if you think that’s the Raiders defense based on that quarter. You got to watch the other seven quarters.”
If the Raiders are to play well Sunday, Zimmer knows Burfict will be at the forefront defensively.
“He’s the leader of their defense,” Zimmer said. “He knows the defense as well as anybody, probably as well as I do. He’s very instinctive. He’s very athletic. He reads things extremely quick and he’s a thumper. He’s going to thump you.”
And Zimmer is OK with that. As long as it’s legal.