CINCINNATI — During the Bengals’ open locker room, linebacker Vontaze Burfict headed for the cafeteria, filled a foam carry-out box and headed straight to the trainer’s room, not returning until the media was leaving.
Pressed to talk for 5 minutes after practice, he came off the field and told reporters he was first going to get a Bengals cap to wear for the occasion.
“I might be back,” he said.
Eventually, he was.
“Three minutes,” he said.
The Bengals’ most volatile player has returned from his latest suspension, and he’s not at all interested in talking about it.
His teammates are just glad he’s back. Burfict is expected to start Sunday when the Bengals (0-3) play at Cleveland (0-3), needing a win to have any relevance in the AFC North race.
“He’s kind of the straw that stirs the drink there,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said during a conference call.
He’s got a knack for stirring things up after returning from a long layoff.
He missed the first six games in 2015 while recovering from a knee injury. During his debut in a 16-10 win at Pittsburgh, he opened the game with two tackles and had five overall.
That included a twisting, sideline tackle on Le’Veon Bell that tore up the running back’s right knee and ratcheted up the ill will between the AFC North rivals.
During a home playoff game that season, Burfict hit Antonio Brown in the head, drawing a 15-yard penalty that set up the Steelers’ winning field goal in the final seconds.
As a result of the egregious hit, the NFL suspected Burfict for the first three games of 2016. In his first game back, the linebacker had three tackles and knocked down a pass during a 22-7 victory, staying on the field for 76 percent of the plays.
He’s expected to start Sunday in Cleveland and play the bulk of the game, even though he’s missed three weeks of practice.
“Once things start being competitive, I’m pretty sure I’m going to want to stay in, but it’s up to the coaches,” Burfict said during his 5-minute media session.
“They don’t want me being over too many plays and obviously getting hurt or something like that. So it’s up to them.”
Burfict’s hard-edged style of play — which has sometimes gone over the edge — rubs off on the defense.
“He’s a good, emotional leader,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “He knows the defense inside and out. It’s nice to have him back. We can use him in a lot of ways. He’s a versatile guy. He’s a big part of what we do.”
The Bengals insist that Burfict has gotten away from his penchant for illegal hits and doesn’t need to change. They’re so committed to the linebacker that they gave him a three-year contract extension during his suspension.
The NFL pointed to his history of egregious hits when handing out the latest punishment.
“I’m sure that after this little time off that he learned somewhat of a lesson,” rookie Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer said Wednesday. “But if he hasn’t, I just have to make sure that I’m protecting myself.”
EIFERT STILL OUT
TE Tyler Eifert wasn’t on the practice field Wednesday because of lingering back issues. Eifert hurt his back during a 13-9 loss to Houston in the second week of the season and didn’t practice last week.
He was inactive for a 27-24 overtime loss in Green Bay. Eifert also missed time last season with back issues and had surgery in December.
ROSS LIMITED, TOO
First-round pick John Ross sat out the Packers game with a sore knee, injured in the final preseason game. He didn’t practice on Wednesday. Neither did safety Shawn Williams (knee). Among those who were limited: RB Giovani Bernard (thigh), DE Carlos Dunlap (neck), WR Brandon LaFell (knee) and S George Iloka (hamstring).