Bengals Linebacker Vontaze Burfict has always been a hothead, but he seems to turn the fire up a notch when playing the divisional opponents. But just because his rivals see him as the dirtiest player in the NFL doesn’t mean they lack respect.
As the two sides are set to meet up this Sunday at 4:25 pm, Burfict was the talk of the Steelers’ locker room.
Ben Roethlisberger told ESPN staff writer Jeremy Fowler that he expects Burfict to play hard no matter what. Of course, Burfict’s work ethic is what makes him special and helps offset his penalties and suspensions.
“Like I said, it doesn't get any easier this week. That's a really, really good defense,” Roethlisberger told Fowler, who covers the Steelers. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Fowler also talked to Le’Veon Bell, who has more of a right than anyone to harbor resentment toward Burfict. The Bengals linebacker ended Bell’s 2015 season early with a knee injury, and despite many accusations from the Steelers, Burfict claims it was unintentional.
“I just go out there and play football,” Bell said to Fowler. “Obviously Bengals-Steelers will always be nitty-gritty. It's football. It's a little smack talk, maybe some plays from one side or another side where one team may think it's dirty or uncalled for. It's football. It's a rivalry game.”
Bell also said he was ready to protect himself against Burfict. Despite the bad blood between the two, Burfict told the Cincinnati Enquirer that “Le’Veon is a friend.”
About a month after Burfict’s season-ending hit on Bell, the AFC North Champion Bengals faced off against the Wild Card Steelers in the playoffs. The beef continued as a Burfict cheap shot on star wide receiver Antonio Brown would give the Steelers an extra 15 yards on a drive that resulted in a go-ahead field goal.
Following crushing loss, the Bengals failed to make the playoffs the next year and are likely to miss out again after starting off 0-3. It is also interesting that after winning two out of their four division championships, both in 2005 and in 2015, the Bengals were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Steelers who were a wild card in both matchups.
But that’s the intensity of the rivalry. Seemingly every matchup has serious implications. Even a 2-3 Bengals squad will be back in the thick of the playoff race with a win in Pittsburgh. Needless to say, emotions will be running high.
Steelers guard David DeCastro knows that Burfict will play off of such emotion.
“I think a lot of times he's trying to get you out of your game, which is a lot of times what he'll do, things like that,” said DeCastro to Fowler. “He'll get you to react. ... It's more like after the play. It's like the push, a guy pushes you, and you'll fly back 15 yards. It's just a little gamesmanship stuff, stupid stuff."
DeCastro came up with an example of that kind of behavior.
“I think Ramon [Foster] got fined one time because [Burfict] stepped on his foot, and Ramon stepped on his [back], and he got flagged for it.”
Naturally, Burfict is trying to get his team a check in the win column. Though, at times, he seems to want the Steelers to lose more than he wants his Bengals to win.
When he watches games from home, whether it’s due to a suspension or a bye week, he can express his disdain towards the Steelers on Twitter. While serving a suspension due to an illegal hit during a preseason game, he watched the Steelers drop an overtime skirmish against the Bears on September 24th and had his own comments to add.
These comments were all about the Bears’ rushing success. The final four tweets were about a go-ahead Jordan Howard touchdown that was called back after the review showed that the running back stepped out of bounds. The Bears reclaimed that touchdown only a few plays later to seal the victory.
Side note: Burfict deleted the three most recent tweets moments after posting them.
This past Thursday, Steelers cornerback Mike Mitchell hit Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith low and from behind, drawing a personal foul and a fine. Mitchell, who is known for dirty play himself, refuses to acknowledge that he and Burfict are comparable.
Burfict clearly disagrees. Here are his thoughts on Mitchell’s cheap shot against Smith:
Burfict rarely takes to Twitter, but you can count on reading a new tweet whenever the Steelers are playing.
Whether intentional or not, Burfict is one of the driving forces that keeps the rivalry alive. From receiving threats from other players to retweeting their dirty plays, Burfict is right in the middle of the fire. Marvin Lewis loves his tough play despite his shenanigans, which is what makes a crucial member of the defense.
The question going into this Sunday is, can either team “just play football?”