The Monday Night Football matchup between the Bengals and Steelers was billed as a physical matchup. It lived up to the hype in all of the wrong ways.
Less than four minutes into the game, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a back injury on a seemingly routine tackle. MNF announcer Sean McDonough noted that Shazier was not seen moving his legs before being stretchered off the field. He was sent by ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where team officials later said in a statement that he had an MRI and a CT scan and “will not require surgery at this time.”
The play is embedded below and is disturbing to watch.
Just seeing the Shazier hit and the terrifying aftermath. Hoping for good news pic.twitter.com/5ztj6p7Urj— Landon Haaf (@LandonHaaf) December 5, 2017
Shazier’s injury hung over the rest of the game. Players from each team were visibly emotional on the sidelines, and defenders on both sides later gave up big gains on plays where they seemed hesitant to be physical.
William Jackson III just said “after you, sir.” Allowing Le’Veon Bell to score with ease. pic.twitter.com/5Z8dErxXAl— Tino Bovenzi (@TinoBovenzi) December 5, 2017
In the second quarter, Bengals running back Joe Mixon took a first-and-10 screen pass for 8 yards before a helmet-to-helmet collision with two defenders. Mixon collapsed to the ground and lay motionless until trainers tended to him.
You can see the hit in this video, which is also disturbing to watch.
And now Joe Mixon’s out cold. What a terrible game. pic.twitter.com/tfKmMXTCVg— 12up (@12upSport) December 5, 2017
Mixon would walk off the field under his own power, but was later ruled out for the game with a concussion. It was not the end of the scary hits for the night.
In the fourth quarter, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster blindsided Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who had already left the game twice due to injury and has a history with the Steelers. After the block, Smith-Schuster stood over Burfict’s chest. You can see the hit on the following video, which is disturbing to watch.
JuJu with the crazy hit on Burfict pic.twitter.com/2DntJwHQgA— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) December 5, 2017
After the play, Burfict jumped off the ground and grabbed Smith-Schuster’s leg in an apparent attempt to reclaim his space. Smith-Schuster walked away and Burfict collapsed back to the ground and called for medical attention. After several moments, he was sent off on a stretcher.
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler relayed the following after the 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
Smith-Schuster tweeted about the play after the game.
I don’t have any intentions to hurt anyone when I play football. I didn’t mean to hurt Vontez Burfict, I just wanted to throw a block for my teammate. I apologize for standing over him and that isn’t me. Praying he gets better.— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) December 5, 2017
On Tuesday, Smith-Schuster was suspended by the league for one game without pay for “dangerous and unsportsmanlike acts.”
Just six plays after the hit on Burfict, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown in the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown. Brown, perhaps the most prominent non-quarterback in the league, suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit by Bengals safety George Iloka as he caught the ball and then laid on the ground motionless as teammates stood over him.
Unreal. Bengals respond with a brutal hit from S George Iloka on Steelers WR Antonio Brown. pic.twitter.com/DoLMgjHuqi— Clint Lamb (@ClintRLamb) December 5, 2017
Brown quickly leapt off the ground and celebrated with his teammates, but it was difficult to appreciate the spectacular touchdown. On Tuesday, Iloka was also suspended for one game without pay.
After that hit, ESPN announcers Jon Gruden and Sean McDonough said what many fans were likely thinking.
“I don’t like seeing that kind of football,” Gruden said.
“It’s an ugly night,” McDonough said.
After getting the ball back shortly after Brown’s touchdown, the Steelers kicker Chris Boswell hit a field goal as time expired, pushing the Steelers to 10-2 with the 23-20 win.
Roethlisberger was interviewed by ESPN’s Lisa Salters on the field after the game.
“How would you explain the viciousness and the brutality of the game?” Salters asked.
“AFC North football,” Roethlisberger said.
The Bengals-Steelers rivalry has produced several incidents in the past 15 years that have led to multiple NFL safety reforms. The so-called Carson Palmer Rule was introduced to protect quarterbacks’ legs after a low hit on Palmer in a January 2006 playoff game tore the then-Bengals quarterback’s ACL and MCL. The Hines Ward Rule was implemented to limit blindside blocks after Steelers receiver Hines Ward broke Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers’s jaw on a block in 2008. And the NFL introduced the Ryan Shazier Rule last year to outlaw crown-to-the-helmet hits after Bengals running back Giovani Bernard was concussed during a hit to the head by the Steelers linebacker in a January 2016 AFC wild-card game.
Almost two years after that play, the football world now awaits word on the severity of Shazier’s injury.
This story has been updated to include the NFL’s suspensions for Smith-Schuster and Iloka.