Ben Roethlisberger is optimistic that the Week 2 battle between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals will be different than previous matchups. When the two teams last met it ended with injuries, punishments and controversy.
But the Pittsburgh quarterback doesn’t think we can expect a repeat on Sunday. Earlier in the week Roethlisberger was asked if he was looking for retaliation against the Bengals for hits that injured both he and Antonio Brown in an AFC Wild Card game in January.
"That's not who we are," Roethlisberger told reporters. "It's a physical football game and a physical division. That's what we expect, a physical football game -- clean."
Toughness and physicality have long been staples of the Steelers as a franchise. That, coupled with sustained success, has meant plenty of rivalries during the team’s illustrious history, including against the Houston Oilers and Baltimore Ravens.
But with the Bengals shaking off decades of futility to string together consistent winning seasons under Marvin Lewis — albeit with playoff failures — Cincinnati has developed into a fierce rival for Pittsburgh.
"Everybody knows the professional hatred we have for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Bengals have with us," Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams told reporters. "Everybody's heard the Twitter fight and things of that nature that we've had in the offseason. Guess what? This Sunday, that comes to a head, and the cameras will be watching. It will be our will versus their will, and we will see who breaks first."
The Steelers hold a 56-35 record all-time against the Bengals and have won 15 of the last 20 matchups. Even at the Bengals’ best, the Steelers have won five of the last six games, but the rivalry really heated up during the 2015 season:
Week 8 (Nov. 1, 2015) - Bengals win, 16-10
The vaunted Steelers offense was held to its lowest scoring output of the season against the Bengals, but bad blood was stirred up when Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict delivered a hit that tore the MCL of Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell.
Many Pittsburgh players accused Burfict of celebrating the injury.
Attached is Ramon Foster's take on Burfict's reaction to Bell— Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) November 1, 2015
Marcus Gilbert called Burfict's behavior "bull(crap)" pic.twitter.com/qNIpJtqD82
Burfict, who has a history of reckless and possibly dirty play, denied claims that he attempted to injure Bell and the claims that he celebrated the hit. He told reporters than he is personal friends with Bell and wasn’t aware that the running back was hurt.
A day after the game, Steelers linebacker Vince Williams went to Twitter to threaten that he would go after Burfict if he saw him in public.
Week 14 (Dec. 13, 2015) - Steelers win, 33-20
Burfict again was in the spotlight against the Steelers when he and linebacker James Harrison were in the middle of a pregame scuffle that quickly involved several other players:
After the game, Roethlisberger said the pregame emotions never died down.
"This was as chippy as, quote unquote, kind of dirty, extracurricular stuff throughout the game that I've ever been a part of,” Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show. “There was a lot of stuff going on under piles, a lot of extra pushing, a lot of extra shoving.
“It was kind of unusual because usually you get out there and there's still a level of respect, even if you despise the other team and you want to beat them so bad, there's still a level of respect and level of professionalism you don't really want other people to get hurt. It was definitely as physical, extracurricular stuff as I've been a part of."
Burfict was again in the role of villain after the game for a low hit on Roethlisberger that earned the linebacker a hefty fine. Roethlisberger accused Burfict of intentionally targeting his legs, which the linebacker denied.
AFC Wild Card game (Jan. 9, 2016) - Steelers win, 18-16
All hell broke loose in the playoffs.
In the first quarter, Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak was penalized for pulling the hair of Bengals safety Reggie Nelson.
Bengals running back Giovani Bernard was knocked out of the game by an unpenalized helmet-to-helmet hit. Then Roethlisberger was carted off the field on the subsequent possession with a shoulder injury and pelted with trash by upset fans.
In the final seconds of the game, the Steelers were gifted 30 free yards for penalties on Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones that set-up a game-winning field goal. Burfict was suspended three games for the hit to Antonio Brown that drew the penalty.
The following penalty on Jones was called after Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter provoked a fight on the middle of the field, which he wasn’t legally allowed to be on.
Brown was forced to sit out the Steelers’ next postseason game against the eventual-Super Bowl champions, the Denver Broncos, with a concussion and Jones apologized for his comments.
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Ultimately, the 2015 saga between the Bengals and Steelers was both teams’ undoing. The physical battles between the two teams that often became dirty led to injuries to Pittsburgh’s most important players: Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
Without the entire trio in tact, the Steelers lost in the Divisional Round to the Broncos, 23-16.
The wild emotions of the rivalry clearly cost the Bengals too, as the pair of penalties late in the game against the Steelers undid a 16-15 lead and ended a 12-4 season without a playoff win — something that has eluded Marvin Lewis in seven trips to the postseason.
Burfict is still suspended for his actions and that may help to lighten the tensions between the two franchises. But self-preservation after the two tore each other apart in 2015 may be the biggest incentive for both teams to dial back the intensity.