Tuesday's NFL: Steelers' win marred by cheap hits

Associated Press
Ryan Shazier of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts as he is carted off the field after a injury against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first half Monday.

Cincinnati — Two players carted off, two others suspended, many fines to follow. One of the NFL’s nastiest rivalries set new lows in prime time, forcing fans to avert their eyes.

What’s to be done about this long-running animosity between the Steelers (10-2) and Bengals (5-7)? Do the teams encourage the mayhem by downplaying it? Do the NFL and the networks promote it by showing it in prime time every season?

Those questions were raised in the aftermath of a game so brutal that it made viewers cringe. Pittsburgh rallied for a 23-20 victory at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday night, its sixth straight win over the Bengals.

What it’ll be remembered for, though, is how it felt more like a street brawl at times. The NFL responded by suspending Steelers receiver JuJu Schuster-Smith and Bengals safety George Iloka for one game each on Tuesday, and fines for other players are expected later in the week.

“I’ll acknowledge there were some unfortunate things in that game that we don’t need in our game — by both sides,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.

It’s been going on for years, with grudges deepening.

Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier will remain in a Cincinnati hospital until at least today to undergo further testing on a spinal injury suffered in the first quarter.

Shazier left Paul Brown Stadium on a stretcher less than four minutes into the game following a tackle that left the 25-year-old writhing on the turf, his legs motionless. He underwent extensive testing overnight, with the team saying Shazier’s injury did not require surgery “at this time.”

The Steelers had hoped Shazier would be able to return to Pittsburgh on Tuesday. The timetable has been pushed back at least 24 to 48 hours. He remained at University of Cincinnati Medical Center under the care of neurosurgeons David Okonwko and Joseph Cheng. Shazier is expected to be transferred to a Pittsburgh hospital later in the week.

While the severity of the injury will remain unknown until the swelling subsides, the relentlessly upbeat Shazier offered a bit of hope Tuesday evening.

“Thank you for the prayers,” Shazier tweeted . “Your support is uplifting to me and my family. #SHALIEVE”

Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict — a focal point for much of the animosity — left the field on a cart with a concussion after Schuster-Smith leveled him with a blindside hit. The receiver then stood over the fallen linebacker to taunt him.

As Schuster-Smith apologized for taunting after the game, receiver Antonio Brown yelled: “Karma! It’s called karma!”

The NFL’s letter to Schuster-Smith informing him of the suspension said the egregious hit and the taunting “fell far below the high standards of sportsmanship expected of an NFL player.”

Iloka hit Brown in the head after his touchdown catch tied the game in the fourth quarter. Brown wasn’t hurt, but the NFL suspended the Bengals safety for the type of flagrant hit that has “no place in our game.”

Those moments have defined the rivalry since 2015, when Burfict made a twisting tackle on Le’Veon Bell that left the Steelers running back with a torn knee. Burfict celebrated — the Bengals say he was just happy to make a big play — but Bell and the Steelers took umbrage.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis — who has steadfastly defended Burfict — is finishing his contract and could be done in Cincinnati after a 15-year run. He’s 0-7 in the playoffs — including two losses to Pittsburgh — and he’s 8-24 against the Steelers overall.

Burfict will stay. He got a contract extension earlier this year while serving another three-game suspension for an egregious preseason hit. He also was ejected from a game in Tennessee for pushing an official’s arm away.

The question is how to keep it from turning a rivalry into a rumble.

“The rivalry is real,” Bengals linebacker Kevin Minter said after the game. “We come for them, and they come for us.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and team president Art Rooney II visited Shazier before heading back to Pittsburgh. Tomlin called their conversation “normal” and said Shazier was concerned about the well-being of the rest of the team, including good friend and fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams.

“Ryan is a legitimate leader,” Tomlin said. “He’s asking about the guys, Vince particularly. I told him about the guys. We talked about how the game unfolded.”

Extra points

The Bears placed right guard Kyle Long on injured reserve for the second straight season.

The three-time Pro Bowler has been trying to play through a left shoulder injury he suffered in 2016. He aggravated it during Sunday’s loss to the 49ers and sat out the second half.

The Bills placed wide receiver Jordan Matthews and defensive end Shaq Lawson on injured reserve, ending their seasons.

... The Broncos placed defensive end Derek Wolfe on season-ending injured reserve with a neck injury.

NFC playoff picture

Remaining games for top teams in the NFC playoff race:

Division leaders

Philadelphia (10-2): at Rams, at Giants, vs. Raiders, vs. Cowboys

Minnesota (10-2): at Panthers, vs. Bengals, at Packers, vs. Bears

New Orleans (9-3): at Falcons, vs. Jets, vs. Falcons, at Buccaneers

L.A. Rams (9-3): vs. Eagles, at Seahawks, at Titans, vs. 49ers


Carolina (8-4): vs. Vikings, vs. Packers, vs. Buccaneers, at Atlanta

Seattle (8-4): at Jaguars, vs. Rams, at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals

Atlanta (7-5): vs. Saints, at Buccaneers, at Saints, vs. Panthers

Detroit (6-6): at Buccaneers, vs. Bears, at Bengals, vs. Packers

Green Bay (6-6): at Browns, at Panthers, vs. Vikings, at Lions

Dallas (6-6): at Giants, at Raiders, vs. Seahawks, at Eagles