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Embarrassing Behavior

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Last Sunday morning, just hours after one of the wildest playoff wins in team history, Steelers fans were at their pretentious best.

Steelers Nation wants the NFL to suspend Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, ban him or at least throw darts at his likeness in bars throughout the Steel City.

Burfict's vicious fourth quarter late hit on Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown helped hand the Steelers an improbable 18-16 win over the Bengals in Saturday's Wild Card game. The Cincinnati linebacker was seconds away from being the hero of the Bengals first playoff win in a quarter century. Earlier in the game, Burfict knocked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from the contest with a ferocious – yet legal – sack. He followed that with a diving interception on a Landry Jones pass across the middle that should have sealed the game for the Bengals.

But then there was a forced fumble by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier on Jeremy Hill, followed by a pair of Roethlisberger third and fourth down completions to Fitzgerald Toussaint and Brown. Those three great plays, however, merely set the stage for one of the ugliest collapses in a long and ugly Bengals playoff history.

As if the Burfict head shot and ensuing 15 yard penalty wasn't enough, Cincinnati cornerback Pacman Jones was flagged an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. The 30 yards in penalties put the Steelers in field goal range, and kicker Chris Boswell easily connected on a 35-yarder to send the Bengals home as losers once again.

Burfict, whose emotions are often over the top, was out of control late in the game. He helped cost his team a victory.

But Steelers fans that think Burfict is unique are embarrassingly naive. The Bengals linebacker – one of the most talented young players in the game today – did not do anything that Steelers linebacker James Harrison has not made a career of.

Burfict's shoulder shot to Brown's cranium is exactly the type of play the NFL is trying to get rid of. He clearly hit a defenseless receiver in the head. And he did it late; the ball was gone and Burfict's near-decapitation need not have taken place.

It is also precisely the type of play Steelers fans have championed Harrison for making. It’s the same play that the Black and Gold have defended and excused from their own players since the NFL began penalizing and fining for head shots. Google "James Harrison/Mohamed Massaquoi" or "Colt McCoy" or "Josh Cribbs." The list of Harrison’s illegal hits is lengthy, and Steelers fans defended all of them, excused Harrison, and chastised the NFL for penalizing their player.Steelers James Harrison

Harrison, at least, is consistent.

"Personally, I don't think it is [a penalty] because I don't think you can get out of the way fast enough," Harrison told NFL Network after the game when discussing Burfict's hit on his teammate.

There is a lot of Harrison in Burfict, both in his talent-level and in his tendency to go over the top. He could either be on his way to a Hall of Fame caliber career or he could find himself out of the league if he's unable to contain his emotions. That will ultimately be up to Burfict himself.

Harrison, who seems to feel for the young Cincy defender, agreed that Burfict gets "a little bit out of control" on the field at times, but called his play "calculated."

Again, at least Harrison is consistent.

That is better than we can say for large chunks of the Steelers' fan base and most of the media covering Saturday night's debacle.

After the game, the shaming of the Bengals was in full form. The derision pouring down upon Burfict, teammate Pacman Jones, head coach Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati fans seemed to know no limits.

None of that criticism is out of line. The players deserved their penalties. The boorish behavior of Bengals' fans who threw bottles and jeered at an injured Roethlisberger is disgusting. Lewis' inability to get control over his players cost his team a playoff win and could wind up costing him a job eventually.

But at least Lewis had control over his assistant coaches. The Steelers clearly did not.

Assistant coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame player and one of the best offensive line coaches of his generation, cost the Steelers' offense 15 yards for his inexplicable behavior against Bengals safety Reggie Nelson on the Steelers sideline.

Nelson shoved Steelers running back Jordan Todman out of bounds in the first quarter and Nelson’s momentum carried him into Munchak. Nelson pulled up before he got to Munchak, but the Steelers coach responded by grabbing Nelson's arm and hair and yanking him toward him. Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward had to step in front of his coach to prevent the incident from getting even further out of hand.

While that was uncharacteristic of Munchak, the behavior of linebackers coach Joey Porter in the fourth quarter was not so uncharacteristic.

Porter made his way onto the field after Burfict's hit on Brown, apparently under the guise of checking on his player's health. But Porter was nowhere near Brown. Instead, he was standing in between four or five Bengals players shouting at one another like 16-year-olds at Monroeville Mall. Jones appeared to bump an official while trying to get at Porter, which is apparently what drew his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva pulled Porter out of the fray, saving his coach from further embarrassment.

The NFL rulebook states that only "team attendants and their helpers may enter the field to attend to their team during a timeout by either team. No other non-player may come onto the field without the Referee's permission."

Porter, who was definitely not attending to Antonio Brown, should have been penalized and it's unclear why he was not.

At the end of the day, the Bengals deserved to lose the game. Burfict and Jones are responsible for their actions and both players are major reasons why their team's season is over.

But the Steelers – and head coach Mike Tomlin – are now left to face the disturbing fact that two of their coaches nearly did the same.

There's nothing to be proud of in that.


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