While cameras and microphones hover around Bengals rookie Rey Maualuga, another linebacker from USC is quietly preparing for what could turn out be a Pro-Bowl-caliber season.
Keith Rivers, drafted ninth overall in 2008, returns for his second season with a new realization of just how violent the NFL can be. In Week 7 of last year, Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward, blind-sided Rivers on a down-field block, breaking his jaw and sending tremors through the televisions of anyone watching. The team was left without their most promising linebacker and Rivers was left eating through a straw.
Prior to such an abrupt setback, Rivers was on his way to a nice season. In just over six games, Rivers racked up 37 tackles and returned a pick 39 yards against Dallas—add 10 more games on to that season and he’d be close to 100 tackles and probably another interception or two. He did show rookie mistakes at times—and was hard on himself for making them—but it’s a learning curve that nearly every player goes through.
But a new day has dawned for the eager Keith Rivers who now eats his food like we do. Even his divisional foes think he’ll return with a vengeance. In a July 7th article, ESPN blogger James Walker, surveyed 32 anonymous AFC North players and asked them which player in the division is most likely to have a breakout year. Players could not vote for themselves or for a teammate. The number one response was Keith Rivers.
Playing alongside the same man of his college days, Maualuga, can only help both linebackers. Familiarity and a common football language, particularly with younger players, seems awfully important when learning a new defensive scheme. Rey will also help Rivers by just being on the field. If opposing teams focus on eliminating Maualuga, then Rivers will be free to make tackles—something he’s shown he’s capable of doing.
You can’t blame the media for falling for Maualuga. He smiles all the time, he has burly tattoos and a mangy head, and he drives ball-carriers through cement walls; he’s marketable. Rivers only sells hard-work, discipline and a business-like approach to football, and those words don’t make for good headlines. Not to say that Rey doesn’t share these qualities, but it’s his general exuberance that fans are drawn to.
Rivers should come into the season with a new chip on his shoulder, hungry to do damage of his own. With Maualuga’s carpet-bombing style of play, mixed in with Rivers’ precise, missile-strike tackles—not to mention the sage wisdom of Dhani Jones and the tall and loping Brandon Johnson—this linebacker corps has the ingredients to be great. While the others each have cool abilities and attributes to them, Rivers should be the Optimus Prime of the group and lead the way.