By Joe Kay
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — Linebacker Vontaze Burfict ran out of the tunnel and into the fog that the Bengals generate for their pregame introductions.
He emerged from the cloud to a great cheer at Paul Brown Stadium.
After sitting out three games on an NFL suspension, Burfict was back. And so was the Bengals’ stingy defense.
The defense gave up a lot of big plays and got little pressure on the quarterback during a 1-2 start. It was back in character during the previous game with its volatile, playmaking linebacker in the middle of things once again.
Cincinnati had by far its best defensive showing during a 22-7 win over the Dolphins last Thursday. The victory got Cincinnati (2-2) back to break-even and eased many of the concerns over how long it would take the defense to regain its edge.
“Absolutely,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “What I expect to see — that’s how I envision it. Hopefully we’ll continue on that trend. That’s the group I’m used to seeing.”
The Bengals kept the core of the defense intact in the offseason. The biggest loss was Burfict, whose hit to Antonio Brown’s head helped the Steelers get in range for the winning field goal and an 18-16 victory in the first round of the playoffs. That hit, along with previous other infractions, prompted the NFL to suspend the linebacker for three games.
Burfict isn’t only their leading tackler; he’s also the one who helps everyone get lined up in the right spots for plays.
“He adds a lot of different elements as far as knowing the defense, lining guys up, getting the (play) calls, all of the adjustments you have to, and then just the energy he brings to the group is really big,” Guenther said.
Burfict was on the field for 34 of the defense’s 45 snaps, more than any other linebacker. Coach Marvin Lewis used the lopsided game to get Burfict back into playing shape.
“I hadn’t had any practices or anything like that and having to play the full game, I was a little sore,” Burfict said. “But it’s kind of a mind-over-matter thing.”
He’s expected to play a lot again on Sunday in Dallas (3-1) against an offense that’s among the best in the league at running the ball. The Cowboys rank second in the league in both offense and yards rushing. Rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads the league with 412 yards, averaging 4.4 per carry.
“If you go back and look at some of the film, some of the holes are so wide open that my little girl could run through there,” cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones said.
“I think a couple teams they played were very undisciplined when it comes to gaps. But I take my hat off to the guy. He’s been playing pretty good.”
The Bengals’ defense had trouble stopping the run in the first three games, but improved at that, too, against a Dolphins team that’s among the worst at running the ball.
Now they get to see whether that was a one-time improvement or if they’ve corrected those problems as well.
“It’s going to be a really good battle,” end Carlos Dunlap said. “They have a really good running game, and we pride ourselves on stopping the run.”
Notes: CB Dre Kirkpatrick had a second full day of practice on Thursday, an indication he’s ready to start against Dallas after missing one game with a hamstring injury. … TE Tyler Eifert missed a second straight day of practice with a sore back in addition to his recovery from ankle surgery in the offseason. He’d miss his fifth game on Sunday. … RT Cedric Ogbuehi also missed practice with an illness, and reserve tackle Jake Fisher sat out with a bad back. … G Clint Boling (shoulder) and RB Jeremy Hill (chest) were limited again.