Vontaze Burfict will play against the Steelers Sunday for the first time since he knocked Antonio Brown out of the playoffs last year with a hit to the head.
Burfict was suspended when the Steelers beat the Bengals 24-16 at Pittsburgh in Week 2 this season. He sat out three games for his hit on Brown and several dirty plays in other games. During last year’s regular-season game at Cincinnati, Burfict took a shot at Ben Roethlisberger’s knees after Roethlisberger had released the ball.
Burfict also ended Le’Veon Bell’s 2015 season by injuring his knee on a tackle in Week 8 at Pittsburgh. While the tackle was clean, several Steelers players felt that Burfict celebrated the injury.
The Steelers rely on Bell now more than they have at any point in his career. He ran for a franchise-record 236 yards in Sunday’s 27-20 win over the Bills and has run for 100 or more yards in four straight games, all of which the Steelers have won after losing four straight. The Steelers (8-5) can win the AFC North if they win their remaining three games, but if Bell’s season ends against the Bengals as it did in 2014 and 2015, they can forget about a deep playoff run if they even make the playoffs at all.
“We’ll deal with him whenever it gets to that,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Burfict.
There wasn’t much else the Steelers had to say about Burfict, even though he had a hand in the absences of Bell and Brown in last year’s AFC divisional playoff game at Denver as well as a shoulder injury Roethlisberger was dealing with in that game. Burfict drove Roethlisberger’s shoulder into the ground in the playoff game at Cincinnati. The Steelers were eliminated 23-16 at Denver but led that game with three minutes remaining. Had Bell or Brown played in that game, the Steelers would have had a good chance to get a shot at the Patriots in the AFC championship game.
It’s a huge “what if?” that haunted the Steelers throughout the offseason.
The Steelers are taking a business-as-usual approach but at the same time they’re not going to let Burfict single-handedly sideline the heart of their offense.
Sunday’s game originally was scheduled for Sunday Night Football, but the Buccaneers’ game at Dallas was flexed to that time slot because of the surprising success of both teams this season. The Steelers and Bengals were moved to 1 p.m.
NBC could be missing out on some prime-time fireworks.