CINCINNATI (AP) — While the rest of his teammates stretched on the practice field, middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict went to a side field for a strenuous workout. He made quick cuts and ran at full speed.
The unbeaten Bengals are about to get one of their best players back.
Burfict was held out of practice on Monday when the Bengals (6-0) returned from their bye. During his personal workout, he moved smoothly and appeared to have no problem with his left knee.
Burfict is eligible to return from an injury list this week. He was still recovering from a second knee operation when the season began, and the Bengals decided to be cautious and give him a few more weeks.
Looks as if it won’t be long now.
“There’s some matchups and different things you can do with a player like that,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said after practice. “He’s one of our best players when he’s in there. It’s no different than having a top running back or a top receiver. Your plan changes. Certainly when he gets back, it will be good.”
Even without him, the Bengals have been good enough to take control of the AFC North. They’ll try for the best start in their history when they play at second-place Pittsburgh (4-3) on Sunday with a chance to take control of the division.
The offense has carried the team so far, ranking third overall in yards and fourth in points scored with 182. Andy Dalton leads the NFL with a passer rating of 116.1, throwing for 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions.
The defense has given up a lot of yards, ranking 22nd in the league, but has allowed only 122 points, the eighth-fewest.
It could use Burfict, who made the Pro Bowl in 2013 but missed most of last season with concussions and torn knee cartilage that required two operations.
The plan is to work him back slowly, giving him a few more plays each game. First, he has to be cleared by the medical staff to practice. That could happen as soon as Wednesday.
“You’re not going to be in football shape right away, so you can’t play a whole bunch of snaps right away,” Guenther said. “We’ll have to ease him into it when he gets back.”
The Bengals have avoided significant injuries while matching the best start in franchise history at 6-0. Burfict is the only key player missing.
Cincinnati is one of five teams off to 6-0 starts, the most in NFL history. The Patriots, Panthers, Broncos and Packers also are unbeaten.
One of their long-standing problems has been getting back to speed coming out of a bye. During coach Marvin Lewis’ 12 previous seasons, they’ve gone 4-7-1 in their first game back. Last season, they went 3-0 before their bye, and then lost at New England 43-17 in the first game back.
The challenge is to figure out how to avoid the lull.
“Nothing you did before the bye really is going to matter,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “It’s going to be the energy, the attitude that you need coming out of it, that you’re starting all over again.
“You almost have to have that feeling that it’s week one and we’ve got to find ourselves and play well and get through the ups and downs. And there’s going to be some of that — that’s just the nature of it.”
Notes: A win on Sunday would be Dalton’s 23rd on the road, matching Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan for most by a quarterback in his first five seasons since the 1970 merger. … The Steelers have won three in a row and eight of their past 10 against the Bengals. Last year, they won 42-21 at Paul Brown Stadium and 27-17 at Heinz Field.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: www.twitter.com/AP_NFL