CINCINNATI -- The Bengals matchup Sunday in Pittsburgh is a big early test for the team in general.
But it is a huge test for Adam "Pacman" Jones -- one he has to pass to show he has truly reinvented himself again.
Jones was one of the two principals in the meltdown against the Steelers in the playoffs last year. His unsportsmanlike penalty basically iced the game for the Steelers.
Jones later reacted angrily in a profanity-laced post on Instagram. He quickly deleted the post. But a lot of people thought the incident would end Jones' career with the Bengals. He was a free agent, after all, and this was the latest of many incidents on and off the field.
But less than two months later, the Bengals signed Jones to a three-year deal worth a little over $20 million.
The Bengals have been the team of second chances, so it wasn't a total shock. But it pointed to another fact: If you're a good player, you get a lot of rope.
Jones is a very good player and he's gotten a lot of rope. But for the Bengals to get where they want to be -- playing deep in the playoffs -- they need Jones and Vontaze Burfict to avoid incidents like the one in that Wild Card game. Burfict's unnecessary roughness penalty, which preceded Jones' infraction, brought him a three-game suspension, so he won't be playing in Pittsburgh Sunday.
Jones will be playing, though, and the Steelers will try to provoke him. That's a given.
Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter provoked him in the Wild Card game, and as Carlos Dunlap put it after the game, "We took the cheese." In other words, it would have been different if Jones had walked away.
Jones has been on his best behavior this week. He told approaching reporters Monday that he wasn't talking about the Steelers. He wasn't around during the media availability Wednesday.
So maybe he'll be a different guy Sunday.
Jones has been a better citizen since the Bengals signed him in 2010. It would have been impossible to stay on the same path he'd been on and keep playing.
The litany of off-the-field incidents -- some very serious -- nearly cost him his career. He was suspended for over a year while with Tennessee. And his Wikipedia page is dominated by the incidents.
Jones has made progress in relative terms, i.e, his incidents with the Bengals have been on-the-field.
The NFL can do all it wants to curtail the helmet-to-helmet hits and the like, but the cold, hard fact is that football remains a violent game, and emotional, tough players like Jones are valuable.
"He's very important to this team," cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. "He's one of the ultimate competitors, ultimate warrior. He does a lot for the young guys as far as getting ready, mentally and physically. He's a hard worker in the weight room. He works extra hard in the film room.
"He's a guy who understands the game. There ain't too many people in the locker room on defense that know more about ball than him."
Safety George Iloka echoed that.
"I know when I was young, I looked to the vets for leadership," he said, "just things that you don't get from coaches. You learn from vets. How to carry yourself, how to conduct yourself on the field, off the field, how to prepare for a game. I know he's a valuable tool for the young guys and me still as well."
Kirkpatrick knows about Jones' past.
"He's had his flaws," Kirkpatrick said. "But I feel like this is a new Adam Jones. He's taken a different approach. He's trying to control his emotions a little better, and it's rubbing off on us."
We'll see if that's true Sunday.
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at email@example.com