Cincinnati Bengals: Is Rey Maualuga Ready to Lead a Defense Seeking Identity?

Matt GrayContributor IAugust 4, 2011

SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 20:  Linebacker Rey Maualuga #58 of the Cincinnati Bengals on the field against the San Diego Chargers on December 20, 2009 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California.  The Chargers won 27-24.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

With training camp in full swing and today being the first day that free agents can get on the field and practice, change will be the word of the day in Georgetown, Ky. and all around the league as a whole.

In an offseason of trauma and transitions for the Cincinnati Bengals, Andrew Whitworth became the team's spiritual and vocal leader. Whitworth served as the Bengals representative during labor negotiations, which we all know was a frustrating few months for all involved.

Whitworth's service to the team during this period attests to how and why he is so highly respected and trusted within that organization. Let's not forget that the man known as 'Whit' has also been one of Cincinnati's best on-field performers.

Pro Football Focus has compiled a list of the league's best offensive tackles based on their production from 2008-2010, with Whitworth ranking fifth league-wide over that period.

While Andy Dalton grows and develops as a quarterback, Whitworth will prove a valuable ally in the huddle, not only for his leadership chops and to boost team morale, but to provide protection that Dalton is really going to need in his rookie year with Cincinnati.

Dalton has looked promising in the early stages of training camp, and despite expected timing issues with equally untested receivers, it is his tenacity and drive that have inspired confidence. 

Which brings us to our main talking point, the defense, and more specifically, Rey Maualuga.

After a number of free agent signings, re-signings, departures and a sprinkling of injuries, the Bengals defense looks a lot different to what it did just a year ago, and today will be the first time they all practice as a unit.

With Maualuga making his long overdue shift to his natural position in the middle, there will likely be two new faces on either side of him in Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard. With Keith Rivers unlikely to return until October, Howard will provide stability on the weak side and can also make the shift to be a nuisance in nickel formations as well. Lawson will step into the hole left by Maualuga at Sam linebacker, and should have no trouble picking up where Rey left off.

There's no denying that expectations are high for Maualuga this season, with his shift to the middle being the catalyst for most of the hype. It will be interesting to see if Maualuga can live up to the lofty standards being bandied about; let's not forget, it's been two years since Rey played in the middle, so patience will be needed.

It will be much tougher for Rey than you think, and his ability to shoulder these lofty expectations through an intense learning period will test his mettle.

Maualuga has certainly inspired confidence this offseason. By staying in Ohio and working out with the team, Rey has proved his commitment to the cause, whilst others rode bulls or sulked in their California mansions.

With the lockout giving players an extended holiday, it was refreshing and pleasing to see members of the Bengals defense working out together at Ignition in Cincinnati, with Maualuga and Domata Peko playing a role in rallying the troops so to speak. 

Geoff Hobson of has reported from Georgetown that Rey is in great shape and has been working really well with the younger players, in particular DeQuin Evans, an inspiring start to what might be a difficult year.

We must not forget other potential leaders on defense, particularly the aforementioned Domata Peko, who was instrumental in gathering younger players during the off-season for team practices and player workouts. While Peko's production doesn't show up in numbers, he is lightning fast, and can be a handful for other defenses.

Peko cemented his place in the hearts of Bengals fans with his freight-train hit on Troy Polamalu in 2010 that sent the equally hairy Steeler's safety crashing to the turf. Peko will be integral to helping the Bengals defense gel in the short time they have before the 2011 season kicks off, and seems more than happy to play that role.

Honorable mentions go to the likes of Leon Hall, Robert Geathers and Chris Crocker, who will also play a role in leading the Bengals defense in 2011.

It was thought that the Bengals offense was going to be the main draw for fans in 2011, with A.J. Green and Andy Dalton suiting up in stripes, but in the last week, the Bengals defense has undergone such a radical overhaul with the likes of Howard, Clements and Lawson being added to the fold that it has become just as intriguing as the offense.  

So with Mike Zimmer in full (F-bombing) force down at Georgetown, the defense will surely be pushed hard through the coming weeks, as they try to not only gel as a relatively new-look defense, but as they try to reach the standard they set in their AFC North-winning 2009 season.

While the field may be littered with new names and faces, one thing is for certain, all eyes remain focused on Maualuga.