Steelers, Bengals embarrass NFL in brutal Monday Night hit-fest: Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier back in Pittsburgh following scary spine injury

By Jake McDonnell, Sports Editor

     On Monday Night Football this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals competed in what was supposed to be a pivotal AFC North battle. The Steelers, now winners of seven straight, sit atop the AFC along with the Patriots at 10-2. The Bengals went into Monday riding a two-game winning streak and in the thick of a clustered AFC Wild Card race. The Steelers left Paul Brown Stadium with a 23-20 win over the Bengals, but the final score seemed much less important than what transpired during the game.

     In the recent meetings between these two teams, a lot of drama took place. For the longest time. The rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and the Steelers was long thought of as the most physical matchup in the NFL, but the 2015 Wild Card game between the Bengals and Steelers changed that motto. Bengals running back Giovani Barnard and Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown both got knocked out in the second half with concussions. Both plays occurred with defenders Ryan Shazier and Vontaze Burfict leading with their helmet. The Burfict play became the first of two personal fouls on the same drive and led to the Bengals’ seventh straight playoff defeat.

     Since that wild January night in Cincinnati, the two teams have met four times. The first three games went relatively smooth, but on Monday night things got out-of-hand.

     The first of several incidents definitely became the most concerning event of Monday’s contest. Four minutes into the game, Shazier severely injured his back while tackling Bengals receiver Josh Malone. The injury might be the worst back injury I’ve ever seen watching football. Shazier led with his helmet/neck, and collided with the right side of Malone’s body. Shazier fell to the ground and immediately grabbed his back. He was able to turn over on his back and his legs immediately fell limp. He was carried out on a stretcher and taken to UC Health’s University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he underwent tests that included a CT scan and an MRI. On Tuesday, Shazier continued to undergo testing on his injury, and even showed some movement in his lower extremities. Although he will apparently not need surgery, Shazier returrned to Pittsburgh on Wednesday after spending almost 48 hours at UC Health in Cincinnati.

     Amazingly, that was just the start of the drama. With about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Steelers rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster violently collided with Burfict on a completed pass to Le’Veon Bell. After the hit, Smith-Schuster stood over Burfict and was penalized for taunting. Burfict remained on the ground for several moments and got taken off on a cart. He underwent testing for a concussion, but apparently yelled at Bengals’ team doctors to let him go back out and play.

     The helmet-smashing continued just a few moments later when Antonio Brown caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger. As Brown caught the ball, Bengals’ safety George Iloka ran at Brown helmet-first, but Brown got up without showing concussion symptoms. Iloka was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Both Iloka and Schuster received one-game suspensions for their actions.  

      Amazingly, there were other significant injuries sustained on Monday night, including a concussion to Bengals running back Joe Mixon, and a groin injury to Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones. With all of the focus centered around Shazier’s injury, and the two controversial helmet-to-helmet hits in the second half, the several other injuries seem much less concerning.

     Football is a vicious sport. When you sign up to play football, you put your well-being at risk every time you step on the field. The dangerous of playing football have been well documented, but there was some head-hunting going on in this game. Burfict already has a reputation for being a dirty player, and many fans and experts of the NFL have expressed that Burfict had it coming. Regardless, the way Smith-Schuster led with his helmet (and the manner in which he stood over Burfict), and the way Iloka led with his helmet at Brown, have no place in the sport of football. The NFL is a brotherhood, and the Bengals and Steelers broke that brotherhood on Monday night.

     Adding fuel to the fire after the game was Antonio Brown, who yelled “karma!” as Smith-Schuster was being interviewed after the game.

     The NFL cannot be happy with this game, especially considering it occurred on primetime television. Several issues, like attendance, protests, quality-of-play, and player safety itself surround the NFL this season, and solutions to these problems do not seem imminent. The NFL’s discipline of players who put their opposition in danger has also received a lot of ridicule, and rightfully so. Also this week, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski received a one-game suspension for his vicious hit on Bills’ cornerback Tre’Davious White that gave White a concussion. The difference between the Gronkowski hit on White and Schuster’s hit on Burfict is that a Patriots player had already touched White down before Gronk dove on top of him, while the Burfict play occurred while the linebacker was in pursuit and on his feet. Therefore, the Schuster play CAN be justified, where Gronkowski’s actions have no chance of justification. The fact that these three players are all receiving equal suspensions is laughable.

    Again, football is a vicious sport. A person cannot understand the speed of the game until they step on the field and play the sport themselves. However, there is a difference between head-hunting and having the respect for all players on the field, regardless of what team they play for.


     Hopefully, the rest of the NFL can use this game as a learning experience. Most importantly, the health of Ryan Shazier remains a top concern in the sports world. Shazier’s injury was as scary as it gets in football, and we can only hope that he will still be able to live a productive life, let alone play another down of football.


Ryan Shazier pictured at a 2014 training camp practice at the beginning of his rookie year. Shazier was Pittsburgh’s 2014 first-round pick from Ohio State.