Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster suspended 1 game for hit on Vontaze Burfict
In the wake of Monday night's penalty- and injury-filled game between the Steelers and Bengals, it took less than 24 hours for the NFL to hand out a suspension to a player on each team.
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cincinnati safety George Iloka were given one-game suspensions for their respective fourth-quarter illegal hits during the Steelers' come-from-behind 23-20 victory.
In a release from the NFL, the league's vice president of football operations, Jon Runyan, noted Smith-Schuster violated the league rules that prohibit "unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture" and "unsportsmanlike conduct."
Smith-Schuster, who turned 21 last month, delivered a penalized, blindside block to Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict then stood over him in an act that also drew a flag for taunting.
Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green called Smith-Schuster's play "a dirty hit" that was "not called for."
The letter Runyan wrote to Smith-Schuster to inform him of the suspension was released by the league. In it, Runyan noted "dangerous and unsportsmanlike acts."
"You lined up a defender and delivered a violent and unnecessary blindside shot to his head and neck area," Runyan wrote. "You then 'celebrated' the play by standing over him and taunting him. The contact you made with your opponent placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury and could have been avoided. Your conduct following the hit fell far below the high standards of sportsmanship expected of an NFL player."
JuJu Smith-Schuster & George Iloka have each been suspended 1 game for violations of safety-related playing rules. pic.twitter.com/OyDq7Ca4jy— Michael Signora (@NFLfootballinfo) December 5, 2017
Burfict, who delivered hits that caused season-ending injuries to Steelers stars Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in the past, was taken off the field on a stretcher after the play.
Smith-Schuster appealed his suspension, but it was upheld by appeals officer James Thrash, according to an NFL spokesman. Iloka also appealed, and his case will be heard Wednesday by appeals officer Derrick Brooks.
Brown was the target of Iloka's hit on the tying touchdown with 3 minutes, 55 seconds left in Monday's game. The NFL said Iloka's hit violated its rule that prohibits "forcibly hitting a defenseless player's head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder."
After the game, Brown said Iloka "hit me in the head as hard as he could. I was grateful I was able to hold on to the ball."
Runyan wrote to Iloka: "The Competition Committee has clearly expressed its goal of 'eliminating flagrant hits that have no place in our game' and has encouraged the League office to suspend offenders for egregious violations such as the one you committed last night."
Monday wasn't Iloka's first run-in with the Steelers. In 2015, he was fined $23,152 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on former tight end Heath Miller. Last season, an open-field hit on former Steelers tight end Ladarius Green literally ended Green's career. Green did not play the rest of the season or playoffs and was released after a failed physical in the spring.
"The guy left his feet and hit me in the head," Brown said of Iloka, adding "karma" was coming for him.
Brown also repeatedly said Burfict being subjected to a hit was karma. Brown was knocked out as the result of a Burfict helmet-to-helmet hit late in a wild-card playoff game in Cincinnati after the 2015 season. Brown missed the Steelers' divisional-round game the following week, the only game of consequence he has missed in more than five years.
Burfict's history with the Steelers runs deeper, including kicking fullback Roosevelt Nix during the teams' October meeting this year.
Still, Smith-Schuster denied knowing it was Burfict when he delivered the hit after a reception by Bell. He also said he was "praying" for Burfict and acknowledged that the hit deserved a flag.
"All I saw was Le'Veon catch the ball," Smith-Schuster said, "and I was aiming for the first person to tackle him, and I saw a Bengal jersey. I didn't know it was him.
"I apologize for standing over him. That's not me. I'm better that. It's unsportsmanlike conduct, and I hope he feels better and gets well."
The incidents involving Smith-Schuster and Ilokoa accounted for three of the nine personal foul penalties called during Monday's game, the latest in a long line of chippy, hard-hitting meetings between the AFC North rivals in recent years.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.