I’ve said for many years the Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens is the NFL’s best rivalry. Much of that has to do with both teams always being in the playoff chase but also the physical nature of the two teams. It’s ironic that the same physical play just isn’t as accepted as what occurred in the Steelers-Bengals game last night. Let’s talk about the game briefly.
The Bengals at 5-6 came in fighting to stay in the wild card hunt and did just that in the first half. Joe Mixon (before being injured) and Giovani Bernard were effective in the run game as the Cincinnati offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. Andy Dalton was decisive and accurate and the Steeler pass rush/blitzes weren’t getting home, which helped A.J. Green rack up 77 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions. Add it all up and the Bengals led 17-0 late in the first half before a 33 yard catch and run by Le’Veon Bell was followed by a 38 yard pass interference infraction against Dre Kirpatrick which set up a Chris Boswell field goal to make the halftime score 17-3.
The second half would be pretty much all Pittsburgh. Bell didn’t get much work in the first half but the Steelers made a point of getting him more involved and it paid off. After a Cincy three and out to start the second half, Bell carried three straight times and capped the drive with a 35 yard catch and run where Bell appeared to be on the verge of being pushed out of bounds, but Bell tightroped the sideline and scored while Bengals cornerback William Jackson had the easiest of chances to end the play and just watched Bell run by him. A Cincy field goal would follow but the Steelers scored 13 more points in the fourth quarter including a six yard TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown that tied the game at 20. The Bengals last drive was one to forget as Green dropped a routine pass on first down and Dalton was sacked by Bud Dupree on 3rd and 2. And yes, the Steelers marched 39 yards in eight plays to set up a 43 yard FG for Boswell. Which turned into a 38 yarder after Josh Shaw jumped offsides. 23-20 was the final and with that the 5-7 Bengals will have to win out to have a chance to sneak into the playoffs. The Steelers are 10-2 as they kept pace with the defending champion Patriots in the race for home field advantage.
I was shocked with how effective Cincy was in the running game. The Bengals entered as the worst running team in football and they took it to the Steeler’s sixth-ranked run defense. Cincy nearly doubled up Pittsburgh in time of possession in the first half as the Steelers offense sputtered for the most of the first half. But as good as the Bengals played in the first half, I had a feeling the Steelers would come out with a different edge in the second half. That edge combined with the willingness to feed Le’Veon Bell the football were the big reasons the Steelers rallied. The Bengals are what they are. A group of underachievers that are coached by the mediocre Marvin Lewis. The Steelers are clearly the second-best team in the AFC although there are times where they play down to the competition.
And now to perhaps the most talked-about part of this Monday night contest. That would be the injuries. On the Bengals first drive, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier led with his head while tackling Bengals receiver Josh Malone. After the collision Shazier reached for his back and motioned to the sidelines he was hurt. While on the field Shazier didn’t appear to move his legs and his teammates were visibly shaken as Shazier was immobilized on a spine-board. I felt terrible to see Shazier leave this game because he’s one of the NFL’s best and is the definition of a linebacker playing sideline to sideline. However, Shazier led with his head and when that happens players leave themselves susceptible to injury. And with that in mind, I think it’s fair to wonder if Shazier will use this play as a learning point in his career and modify how he plays the game. The latest on Shazier is he did have feeling in his lower extremities when he was carted off. The Steelers hope to be able to get Shazier to Pittsburgh by Tuesday.
Let’s fast forward to the Steelers game-tying drive. A 12-yard reception by Le’Veon Bell was punctuated by rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster squaring up Vontaze Burfict and laying him flat on his back. Smith-Schuster was flagged for unnecessary roughness and his standing over Burfict drew a taunting penalty. Burfict had to be carted off the field.
I’m not going to lie to you. I thought it was a pretty good hit. It was of the peel back variety and Burfict wasn’t expecting it but it wasn’t from the side or back. Smith-Schuster was fairly square when he made contact and he hit Burfict with his shoulder. Regardless of the hit, the taunting penalty was deserved. After the hit on Burfict, I had the feeling this (the physical play) wasn’t over. And George Iloka made sure it wasn’t when he blasted Antonio Brown in the end zone in the mold of “hitting a defenseless player.” The hit was powerful and to Brown’s head. I have more of a problem with this hit but Iloka was trying to save a touchdown. Do I think Iloka’s hit was in retaliation to Smith-Schuster’s? I think that’s a real possibility. In case you’re wondering, Brown held on to the football and wasn’t injured.
Shazier’s injury was due to poor fundamentals. As much as we know about concussions, defenders continue to launch themselves head-first to get ball carriers to the ground instead of wrapping up. The hits by Smith-Schuster and Iloka were the type of hits we’ve come to expect from this rivalry game. The hit by Smith-Schuster is part of the reason Hines Ward was a great player. The hit by Iloka illustrates how difficult the game has become for safeties. Wide receivers are supposed to fear coming across the middle because of guys like Iloka.
But the rules of football have changed. The media has also changed. Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden lamented the physical play during the game and the words “disturbed and disgusted” were used. This was after the two commentators complained that Walt Anderson’s crew was throwing too many flags. I’m interested to see how the league reacts to this game. The hits by Smith-Schuster and Iloka will result in fines although I can’t imagine either player will be suspended. What does this all mean in the big picture? It comes down to the basics.
Football is rooted in two guys trying to impose one’s will on the other through the use of brute force. That’s what Smith Schuster did to Burfict. That’s what Iloka did to Brown. This is supposed to be the age of player safety. I am all for player safety. But we can’t have this both ways. There has been enough research for players to decide whether or not they want to play football. The injuries are an inherent risk with playing this game. It’s a risk Vontaze Burfict accepts week after week when he punishes offensive players. It’s fitting that JuJu Smith-Schuster knocked him out of the game. And when Smith-Schuster later apologized in the locker room, Antonio Brown could be heard saying “Karma” in the background. It’s football. It’s a rivalry game. The NFL can enact as many rules as they want. But in the end, the roots of this sport make it dangerous and as long as this sport is truly football, that danger is not going away.