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Kevin Gorman: Vontaze Burfict shows best and worst of Bengals

Kevin Gorman
| Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, 6:42 p.m.
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict sacks and injures Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the fourth quarter of their AFC wild-card game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict sacks and injures Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the fourth quarter of their AFC wild-card game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati.

Vontaze Burfict is so volatile that the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker should come with a danger warning label.

Burfict is preceded by a reputation for dirty play that has drawn eight fines, a pair of three-game NFL suspensions — one for his vicious hit on a defenseless Antonio Brown in a 2016 AFC wild-card game — and a forfeiture of $2,187,018 in salary.

Even so, the Steelers know what Burfict brings to the Bengals, who visit Sunday for an AFC North game at Heinz Field.

“I've got all the respect in the world for him as a football player,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “Listen, he's one of the best linebackers in the game. There's no doubt about that. I've been saying that for a while. He's a great football player. And that's what I think is the frustrating part about the extra-curricular stuff, is that it almost takes away from how great he is.”

The Steelers know they must avoid the temptation to retaliate to Burfict's borderline behavior.

“The extra stuff that comes with him, he'll deal with that. He'll get fined or whatever,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “That's our mentality moving forward because we can't make it a thing. We can't go looking for it. If we go looking for it, we've done exactly what he wants us to do: get us out of our game.”

The Bengals are better with Burfict, especially against the Steelers at Heinz Field. Since signing him as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Cincinnati is 2-1 here with Burfict and 0-2 without him. After losing their first three games while Burfict was serving his suspension for a controversial hit on Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman, the Bengals have beaten the Browns and Bills the past two games as Burfict had 19 tackles (14 solo) and a sack.

“He's a great player, no doubt about it, that can impact any game and no different than any other very good player that we see,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “We make sure we spend time talking about how we've got to neutralize those players. As far as anything else, we coach our guys all the time to be smart and don't be the guy doing something that hurts our team.”

Burfict has a history of hurting the Steelers. His tackle led to Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell's season-ending MCL tear in 2015. When Burfict sacked Roethlisberger, he drove his knee into Big Ben's shoulder in that AFC wild-card game. And his shoulder-to-helmet hit on Brown left the All-Pro receiver with a concussion.

But Burfict can represent the best and worst of the Bengals. He has 46 tackles in seven regular-season games against the Steelers, and his interception of a Landry Jones pass in the final minute should have sealed a Bengals victory in that wild-card game — if Bengals running back Jeremy Hill hadn't fumbled on the ensuing play.

“He's darn good in pass coverage, tough taking on lead blocks and tackling ... he's legit now,” Roethlisberger said. “We've got to know where he is. We've got to try to get the right matchups, if it's the pass game. We've got to be aware if he's rushing or he's covering. He's a legit force.”

Foster went so far as to compare the awareness of Burfict's whereabouts to playing against J.J. Watt, saying the Bengals' playmaking ability on defense goes through Burfict.

“I respect him more for his play,” Foster said. “There's not a player in the league who plays him consistently that can't say that he's a really good player. As much as you play against teams and hate teams — you hate Baltimore, you hate Cincy, you hate everybody, honestly — but you respect the players that are really good. You have guys like Aaron Rodgers, that guys might hate playing against them but those guys, what they do is they make you love them because they're such great players. And I think that selfishly, that's what guys as a league want for him: to realize that you don't have to be this guy that does this extra (stuff) because you are a guy that we want to see be successful, too. We want to beat your (butt), but we want to see you be successful. That's what it breaks down to: You shouldn't risk somebody's livelihood or whatever by doing extra when you've already made the play.”

But that's part of the package with Burfict, one the Bengals apparently accept. They signed him to a three-year, $38.68 million contract extension in September, amid his suspension. They know Burfict will be the bad guy when he plays the Steelers at Heinz Field, a role he seems to enjoy. Burfict spent the first Sunday of his suspension tweeting what he considered to be dirty hits by the Steelers in their opener against the Browns.

Boo Burfict, if you will, but know that doing so just fuels his fire.

“The fans getting on him? He couldn't care less. He feeds off it, probably,” Foster said. “He's like, ‘I'm Joker. I'm Bane.' He doesn't care. Villains love to be villains. I'm OK with that. I love Batman, actually.”

Who doesn't? Batman comes with a bat signal, Burfict with a self-destruct button.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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