Before Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger walked off the field following Pittsburgh’s 23-20 comeback victory in Cincinnati on Monday night, he was asked by ESPN’s Lisa Salters what led to the latest violent and ugly mess of a game between the teams.
Big Ben had little explanation, except to say, “That’s just the AFC North.”
We get it. There are a ton of tough players on the Steelers and Bengals who can take hits and deliver them, Roethlisberger being among the toughest.
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But Monday night was a little different from the last time we saw ugliness prevail when Ryan Shazier, Giovani Bernard, Vontaze Burfict and Antonio Brown were all on the same field — in that infamous 2016 AFC wild-card battle.
After Shazier, attempting to tackle Bernard, went down early in the first quarter with a devastating back injury that required him to be taken off the field on a spine board and taken by ambulance to a local hospital, an injury that prompted prayers from players and fans well beyond those in the stadium, you would think the approach of how the teams “took it each other” in the latest heated edition of their rivalry would have changed.
Nope. Down to Brown’s rookie receiving mate, JuJu Smith-Schuster, leveling (and then taunting) Burfict, and then Brown getting smacked in the head himself by Bengals safety George Iloka in the fourth quarter, there were no lessons learned from past situations, distant or recent. Instead, each team was back trying to one-up each other in what remains a never-ending grudge match of revenge and retribution.
Brown, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green had their moments as the superstars to watch in the game. Unfortunately, their big scoring plays were marred by players on both sides continually losing control, and neither the officials nor the head coaches were doing anything to maintain it.
First, those officials. Walt Anderson’s crew was flag-happy as usual. The Bengals, with a boost from multiple personal fouls, set a franchise record with 13 accepted penalties against them for 173 yards. The Steelers got a good share, too, with seven going against them for 66 yards.
Although the crew did call the most obvious spillovers of the bad blood, the focus seemed to be on ticky-tack holding and pass interference calls, and the officials were inconsistent in calling those. The other big job of NFL officials is recognizing when emotions and games are getting out of hand and trying to keep things in check. That didn’t happen with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (again).
Then there were Mike Tomlin and Marvin Lewis, who were quick to deflect questions about the continuation of the smackdown and whether the NFL needs to crack down more. Both chalked it up (again) to the physical nature of the game.
We get it. These are two defensive-minded coaches who know their teams need to play with a certain intensity, toughness, and, yes, attitude. Another big job of NFL coaches, however, is to get their players to play nasty but clean, without crossing the line into eye-for-an-eye territory.
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You can throw reason out the window regarding what has become of Steelers-Bengals. At a time when the NFL needs to reduce dirty hits and headhunting for the sake of its perceived sputtering, harder-to-watch product, those teams continue to stand in defiance, which created an even worse look in one of the league’s prime-time television showcases.
It doesn’t mean “the NFL has gone soft” to emphasize a reduction. It would mean the NFL is getting smart about better preserving and protecting the bodies of players such as Shazier and Burfict, talented defensive athletes who are very enjoyable to watch when they play their physical games the right way.
Also in that eye-for-an-eye spirit, a disturbing word was thrown out during and after the game, including by Brown: “Karma.”
Anti-Steelers fans took it to a dark place. They saw Shazier’s injury as “what he deserved” for violently knocking out Bernard in that infamous playoff meeting. Likewise, when Burfict was down from Smith-Schuster’s block, anti-Bengals/Burfict fans felt as though Burfict was receiving justice for taking out Brown in that same game.
The Steelers and Bengals cannot allow this vicious cycle to continue to the point someone’s career and life are dramatically altered. Shazier’s could be, and what happened to him shouldn’t be immune from having a profound effect on changing things just because it wasn’t related to any of the other heated hits.
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If Shazier’s uncertain future isn’t a harsh wakeup call to the teams to put aside revenge and extend full respect, then nothing will be. Smith-Schuster, all of 21 and who wasn’t there for that playoff game, provided a glimmer of hope when he delivered a quick, heartfelt apology toward Burfict after the game.
The historical ugliness between the two teams has forced the NFL to literally rewrite parts of its rulebook. If the Steelers and Bengals won’t do their part to follow those new rules (or old ones), then the league shouldn’t be afraid to step in (again) and show zero tolerance in response to them taking the rivalry further in the wrong direction.