Vontaze Burfict vs. Steelers: Will force or fury be with Bengals LB in first rematch since meltdown?

And will Pittsburgh be gunning for him?
Posted at 4:10 AM, Dec 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-18 04:41:25-05

CINCINNATI  — One penalty for holding.

Vontaze Burfict has been nearly blameless in his 10 games this season, a statistical suggestion that the Bengals linebacker has finally changed his ways. The best test comes when he finally faces the Steelers on Sunday.

Can Burfict stay under control? 

Will this new positive force be with him? Or will his raging fury and temper overtake him?

And what if the Steelers come headhunting for him?

Burfict played the key role in Cincinnati's playoff meltdown at Paul Brown Stadium last January. His hit to Antonio Brown's head left the receiver with a concussion, moved the Steelers into range for the winning field goal with 18 seconds left, and drew a three-game suspension to start the 2016 season. It was his fourth penalty last season for unnecessary roughness.


The volatile linebacker's coaches and teammates tried to get him to rein in his emotions and follow the rules this season while remaining an impact player. There was some question about whether he could pull off the change.

So far, he has.

"I think mentally he's at a spot now where he's like, 'All right, I'm just going to play football,'" said cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, who also drew a 15-yard penalty in the final minute of the playoff meltdown. "By far he's one of the best linebackers in the league, if not the best. So I think he's done a good job of letting his play talk. He still has his edge, but he picks and chooses his battles now."

Burfict avoided talking to the media this week leading up to his rematch with the Steelers (8-5) , who lead the AFC North and can eliminate Cincinnati (5-7-1) as the defending champions on Sunday.

Burfict and Steelers players extended the nastiness to social media in the offseason; it'll be their first time to trash talk face-to-face.

Burfict's teammates expect the Steelers to try to get him riled up.

"I would too," Jones said. "He'll be all right."

Burfict's production hasn't diminished along with the penalties. Despite missing three games because of the suspension and getting eased back into his role, Burfict leads the team in tackles and has a pair of interceptions and a pair of sacks.

"He is incredible in his ability to diagnose," coach Marvin Lewis said. "It's been recognizable that way since the very first day he was here. He's smart. He understands plays and puts himself in position."

And so far, he's kept himself out of trouble, though the NFL fined him $75,000 after two controversial but unpenalized hits on Patriots players in October.  And a camera caught him giving the bird to fans during the Bills game last month.

"The game has changed," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. "In the 1980s, he would have been on the cover of 'NFL Crunch Time.' He would have been the poster child. Now, it's different. It's a different game, and it's evolving every week and every year, really. And that's the thing he's got to understand."

Nevertheless, hard feelings remain in Pittsburgh. If Burfict's hit on Brown that sidelined him for their playoff loss to the Broncos  the next week isn't enough to inspire payback, the Steelers still remember Burfict's tackle that tore Le'Veon Bell's MCL in Week 8 last year - and Burfict's celebration afterward.

"We'll deal with him whenever it gets to that," Steelers guard Ramon Foster said.

For his part, Bell says he's "just got to be smart" and not get involved in any war of words with Burfict or anyone else.

Bell also sat out the earlier meeting this season while serving an NFL drug suspension.

"I'm going to go out there and beat them with football plays," Bell said. "I'm not going to get out there trash talking. I'm going to get out there and play football."

Coaches on both sides said they expect a clean game.

"I understand the history, particularly the recent history," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "But we can't concern ourselves with that. We're going to come and come to play, and play in the manner in which we always play."

"I think the last game in Pittsburgh was cleanly played," Guenther said. "I think we're over all that stuff at this point."

For the Steelers, there might be enough payback in dethroning last year's AFC North champs and officially knocking the Bengals out of playoff contention. Doing it on the Bengals' turf would make it even sweeter.

And it's not like the Bengals have a home-field advantage. Paul Brown Stadium has become Heinz Field West for the Steelers in recent years, with thousands of fans driving down from the Steel City  to wave their Terrible Towels. The Steelers have won their past three in Cincinnati and six of their past seven.

The Bengals don't have much to play for but pride - unlike last year, when the Super Bowl appeared to be within their reach.

"We love playing against Pittsburgh, so we're eager for the task at hand," Jones said.