Mark Madden: Vontaze Burfict sparks violent Steelers-Bengals rivalry
Clete Blakeman will referee the Pittsburgh Steelers-Cincinnati Bengals game Sunday. Besides being a football official, Blakeman is a personal injury attorney.
The NFL picked the right ref to work this game.
On Dec. 4, the Steelers and host Bengals played a football game that bordered on medieval.
Twenty penalties were assessed for 239 yards. Four fouls were for unnecessary roughness, one for unsportsmanlike conduct, one for roughing the passer and one for taunting.
Those seven extracurricular penalties were the most in an NFL game last season. The Steelers and Bengals have committed 29 such fouls against each other since 2015, by far the most of any matchup in the league.
Two suspensions were meted out: Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster got a game for a blindside crack-back block on (and subsequent taunting of) Cincinnati assassin Vontaze Burfict. Cincinnati safety George Iloka got a game for hitting Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the head. (That ban later was rescinded.)
Three players were concussed. Two got carted off. Four others left the game and did not return.
Ryan Shazier’s career ended in that game. The Steelers linebacker was paralyzed, ironically on an innocent-looking play.
It was a war. That word is often applied to romanticize football, but that didn’t work this time because of the damage done.
The Steelers won 23-20 after trailing 17-0 in the second quarter. But the result rang hollow in view of the game’s savagery.
Jon Gruden did that game’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast. He’s old-school blood and guts, but Gruden said, “I don’t like that kind of football.” It was barbaric.
What will happen this time?
The obvious expectation is that Burfict will try to get even with Smith-Schuster.
Burfict missed the first four games of the season serving a PED suspension. The notion of Burfict with ’roid rage is not comforting.
Burfict is the blasting cap on this powder keg.
In 2015, Burfict ended Le’Veon Bell’s year. He did the same to Antonio Brown in that season’s playoff game between the teams. Burfict has kneed Ben Roethlisberger in the shoulder. He has kicked Roosevelt Nix.
The Bengals linebacker is considered the game’s dirtiest, most violent player — now, and perhaps for all time. He saves his worst for the Steelers.
The misrepresentation of Burfict as a “tough competitor” who “just wants to win” has lessened, especially outside Cincinnati, and just should stop.
Burfict puts violence ahead of winning, never more so than in the Jan. 9, 2016, playoff game between the Steelers and Bengals.
With 22 seconds left and the Bengals leading 16-15, Burfict’s fourth-down penalty for headhunting (and hurting) Brown triggered a chain of events that moved the Steelers 30 yards to the Cincinnati 17 without the ball being snapped. Chris Boswell kicked a field goal. Steelers win. Exhibit A: Violence > winning.
Burfict has been suspended or fined 11 times. He’s been banned 10 games and lost more than $4 million through fines and forfeited pay.
The Steelers aren’t intimidated by the Bengals, much to their benefit. The Bengals are broken and often flinch in big games.
But that doesn’t lessen the danger.
This game feels like the NFL’s version of D-Day: The Steelers might win, but the cost could be heavy. (That’s another war reference. It applies.)
This is a huge test for the Bengals.
Despite constant chaos that tops even the Steelers’ drama, the Bengals won the AFC North in 2013 and ’15. They lead the division at 4-1.
Can the Bengals shut up, wise up and grow up?
A Cincinnati victory puts the Steelers in a deep hole when it comes to catching the Bengals.
A Steelers victory will ignite feelings of “same old story,” both now and moving forward.
Yet the result seems secondary.
The score isn’t the key number. The body count is.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).