The NFL is a physical game, and viewers were reminded of that last night, as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals engaged in a tough divisional matchup. It was filled with unnecessary penalty flags that ruined what was a highly-contested, well-played game between rivals. The teams combined for 20 penalties, and the Bengals had a team-record 173 penalty yards, courtesy of NJ.com’s Darryl Slater. There were two flags that stood out from the rest, though, and those involved Steelers’ receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bengals’ safety George Iloka.
Smith-Schuster and Iloka were both suspended for one game without pay for violations of safety-related playing rules, according to NFL.com’s Kevin Patra. Patra also noted that Mike Garafolo of NFL Network reported both players are appealing the ban. The NFL is putting emphasis on player safety like never before, and both cases are exactly what the league is trying to eradicate from the game. These sort of instances place the league in a tough spot going forward. The Steelers’ wideout was suspended due to his vicious peel back block on Bengals’ linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and it was exacerbated by Smith-Schuster being penalized for taunting after the hit. It was a play in which the rookie receiver was blocking for running back Le’Veon Bell.
Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster just destroyed Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict on this peel back block. pic.twitter.com/DezDC1i8o8
— Clint Lamb (@ClintRLamb) December 5, 2017
Jon Runyan, the NFL vice president of football operations, provided the explanation for Smith-Schuster’s suspension, courtesy of Patra.
“You are suspended for the dangerous and unsportsmanlike acts you committed during the fourth quarter of last night’s game,” Runyan wrote. “Specifically, with 7:10 remaining, on a passing play to a running back, you lined up a defender and delivered a violent and unnecessary blindside shot to his head and neck area. You then ‘celebrated’ the play by standing over him and taunting him. The contact you made with your opponent placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury and could have been avoided. Your contact following the hit fell far below the high standards of sportsmanship expected of an NFL player.”
Nonetheless, there has been mixed emotions about how Smith-Schuster was actually suspended for that hit. It was an illegal block by current league standards, and that’s clear with the way the NFL emphasizes not executing those blocks on vulnerable defenders. That said, many current and former players have expressed how a fine and the ensuing penalty for the hit and the taunting penalty is reasonable. Antonio Brown of the Steelers also kept referring to the receiver’s hit on Burfict as ‘karma’ because of Burfict’s illegal hit on Brown in a recent playoff game.
As JuJu Smith-Schuster talked about his block on Vontaze Burfict, Antonio Brown kept yelling ‘KARMA’ in Smith-Schuster’s direction. Said ‘Touchdown Brown’ will pay his fine.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) December 5, 2017
Iloka’s hit on a split-second play in the endzone was also a questionable suspension, but will likely hold up, too. Runyan’s explanation regarding that instance is as follows, courtesy of Patra.
“On a play which began with 3:55 left in the game, you violently struck a defenseless receiver in the head and neck area,” Runyan wrote to Iloka. “The Competition Commitee has clearly expressed its goal of ‘eliminating flagrant hits that have no place in our game’ and has encouraged the league office to suspend offenders for egregious violations such as the one you committed last night.”
Iloka’s on a play when Brown caught the game-tying touchdown pass in the back of the endzone.
Obviously, the league doesn’t love these hits by Iloka, but on a scoring play it would have to be difficult for a safety to lay off. It remains to be seen if either suspension will be overturned, but the public outcry over both seems to be evident.