CINCINNATI — Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict had his NFL suspension reduced from five to three games Wednesday for his egregious hit on a Chiefs running back during a preseason game.
During the second preseason game, Burfict levelled running back Anthony Sherman on a pass play when he wasn’t the intended target. The play wasn’t penalized, but the league can impose fines or suspensions after reviewing plays.
Burfict originally got a five-game suspension but challenged it. Appeals officer James Thrash reduced it to three games on Wednesday. Burfict will miss home games against the Ravens and Texans and a road game with the Packers. He’ll be eligible to return for a game in Cleveland on Oct. 1.
It’s the second straight season he’s suspended for the first three games. He was punished last season for his hit to Antonio Brown’s head during a 2015 playoff loss to the Steelers. That punishment was due in part to his history of egregious hits.
Burfict’s hit on Brown moved the Steelers in range for a last-minute field goal and an 18-16 victory in the opening round of the playoffs. The meltdown left the Bengals without a playoff victory since 1990, the sixth-longest streak of futility in NFL history.
In a letter to Burfict notifying him of the latest three-game penalty, the league noted his pattern of hits on defenceless players, including one on Ravens tight end Maxx Williams that drew a $50,000 fine.
"This is not your first offence with respect to illegal hits to defenceless players," wrote Jon Runyan, the league’s vice-president of football operations. "To the contrary, this incident is consistent with your pattern of egregious safety-related violations, including your hit on a defenceless player during the 2015 wild-card game and your hit against a Baltimore tight end away from the play on Jan. 3, 2016.
"When players violate the rules intended to protect player safety on a repeated basis, and particularly when the violations carry with them a significant risk of injury to an opposing player … you must be held accountable for this continuing unacceptable conduct."
The Bengals have staunchly defended Burfict. They supported his appeal of the suspension, contending his hit on Sherman wasn’t a technical violation of the league’s player safety rules. In response, the league cited its rules banning unnecessary contact against defenceless players and those who aren’t involved in the flow of the play.
Sherman was coming out of the backfield on a throw down the field to a different player when Burfict lowered his shoulder and levelled him.
In defending Burfict on Tuesday, coach Marvin Lewis said the linebacker has changed. Lewis cited several other plays in the same preseason game when Burfict followed the rules.
"On the very next play, the quarterback scrambles, Vontaze runs over and jumps over Alex Smith when he slides," Lewis said. "The very next play after that, the back goes to the flat and he’s going down for a first down. Vontaze is in coverage and instead of diving in or ‘spearing’ in, he touches him down and jumps over him out of bounds."