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Steelers-Bengals was a gross exchange of headshots, and it was bad for football

The Steelers won, 23-20. It’s hard to care, however, because the game was so disgusting.

The Steelers and Bengals have an ugly rivalry history. They’ve played a few good games, but their modern series isn’t defined by competitive football. It’s defined by players doing horrible things to each other, and never more so than on Monday.

Some quick background: Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier left in the first quarter with a horrifying back injury. We don’t know many details yet, other than the team said he would not need surgery and “he continues to improve.”

But it’s hard not to picture the moment when Shazier was immobilized on a flat board and carted off the field. He had his head down while making an otherwise standard hit. It was a reminder of how violent a game this is even when players aren’t deliberately trying to hurt each other. Later in the game, Bengals running back Joe Mixon was diagnosed with a concussion after a big hit.

Ideally, Shazier’s injury would have reminded everyone on the field that some things — like head, neck, and spinal health — should be more important than the satisfaction of knocking the hell out of somebody. That’s not what happened.

In the fourth quarter Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster put an awful hit on Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict:

Smith-Schuster got two fouls: one for the hit and one for taunting Burfict afterward when he stood over the body of a player who turned out to be seriously injured. About two hours after Shazier left on a board, Burfict did too.

Smith-Schuster could have blocked Burfict effectively without crouching and launching upward to put his head into Burfict’s. He chose not to, and he may have given Burfict a serious brain injury. There was no good reason to do it; there is never a good reason to target someone’s head.

(The Steelers have a particular history with Burfict. He knocked out Antonio Brown in a playoff game two years ago and kicked a Steeler in Week 7. It doesn’t matter at all. You should not use your head as a weapon to mash another guy’s head, especially on a crack-back block when the recipient can’t see it coming.)

Smith-Schuster didn’t get thrown out of the game, because it’s almost impossible to get thrown out of an NFL game for something that happens between the whistles.

A few minutes later, the Bengals took vengeance on a Steeler.

Here’s an equally obvious personal foul — and equally useless shot to the head — by George Iloka, on a late touchdown catch by Brown:

That’s the head being used as a weapon, again, against an opponent. This happened in the course of trying to break up a pass. Maybe it wasn’t sinister, but Iloka’s intent doesn’t change whatever damage he might have dealt to Brown. (Brown was back in on the next Steelers drive, because this is the NFL.)

These kinds of hits don’t have a place in this sport in 2017.

And they never should have had a place in the sport in the first place.

College football has a targeting rule that would have given both Smith-Schuster and Iloka ejections and automatic suspensions for the first halves of their next games. Maybe such a rule would help prevent this kind of cranial warfare in the NFL. (And maybe it wouldn’t — the college rule is also a long way from perfect.)

But what definitely would help is if the Steelers, Bengals, and everyone else stopped trying to hurt each other’s heads during games. It would help if the NFL ejected players when they didn’t obey, then suspended them for more than a week. Smith-Schuster might get suspended for the Steelers’ next game, but he and Rob Gronkowski are both going to be back for Steelers-Patriots in two weeks.

Seconds after Monday’s game, ESPN’s Lisa Salters asked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger about the brutality of the game.

“AFC North football,” Roethlisberger replied.

That was all he said. The saddest thing about it is that he was exactly right.