CINCINNATI – Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown called it “karma.” Steelers fans and others on social media said Vontaze Burfict got what was coming to him.
The NFL meted a one-game suspensions Tuesday to Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for his illegal crack-back block on Burfict during Monday Night Football and to Bengals safety George Iloka for his late helmet-to-helmet hit on Brown after Brown’s TD catch tied the game and dealt the second-to-last blow in another Bengals’ collapse against the Steelers.
Brown, victim of Burfict’s most infamous hit in the Wild Card game here two Januarys ago, couldn’t resist taunting Burfict in the Steelers’ locker room after Pittsburgh's 23-20 comeback victory. While reporters interviewed Smith-Schuster about laying out Burfict, Brown repeatedly shouted “Karma. It’s called karma.”
Smith-Schuster apologized for standing over the prone Burfict and taunting him – “That’s not me. I apologize for that,” he said – but he didn’t apologize for the hit.
He did say he didn’t single out Burfict, Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh, in retaliation for past hits on Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell, ripping up Bell's knee late in the 2015 season. In their October matchup, Burfict kicked Steelers FB Roosevelt Nix in the head and refused to meet with Steelers captains at midfield.
"I didn’t know it was Burfict at first," the rookie said. "All I saw was the first Bengal was going to tackle . . . and my instinct is I gotta block for my teammate.
"Me just playing ball, I hit him. After I seen the replay, I think I should’ve held back a little bit more from blocking him. Also, I believe that that’s not me. I should’ve never stood over him. I apologize for that, and with that being said, I hope he gets better."
I don’t have any intentions to hurt anyone when I play football. I didn’t mean to hurt Vontez Burfict, I just wanted to throw a block for my teammate. I apologize for standing over him and that isn’t me. Praying he gets better.
Burfict was carted off the field but recovered within minutes and walked into the locker room on his own power, the club said.
Since Burfict is one ot the NFL’s must suspended and fined players - considered an outlaw everywhere except Cincinnati, the irony of him being flattened by an illegal hit was not lost on fans far and wide.
Other fans - in a twisted view - said injured Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, still hospitalized Tuesday, got what was coming for his unpenalized hit that knocked Bengals RB Gio Bernard out of the Wild Card game.
Leave it to the Steelers and Bengals to bring out the worst in everything.
Another opinion came from The Sporting News, which blamed officials and coaches for letting the hitting get out of hand.
Officials flagged Smith-Schuster and Iloka for their hits, but neither was ejected.
How the NFL would respond - after some of the rulings we've seen this year, like giving small fines to A.J. Green for body-slamming a Jaguars player and to Burfict for kicking Nix - was hard to tell. But the whole NFL world was watching Monday night, so that might have made a difference.
The Sporting News, for one, hopes it goes further than that. They were among the national media that condemned the cheap shots Monday night:
"If Shazier's uncertain future isn't a harsh wakeup call to the teams to put aside revenge and extend full respect, then nothing will be ...
"The historical ugliness between the two teams has forced the NFL to literally rewrite parts of its rulebook. If the Steelers and Bengals won't do their part to follow those new rules (or old ones), then the league shouldn't be afraid to step in (again) and show zero tolerance in response to them taking the rivalry further in the wrong direction."