Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict sees five-game suspension cut to three

Burfict toeing line between physical and dirty player (1:07)

Mike Golic reacts to Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict's reduced suspension from five games to three for an illegal hit on Chiefs FB Anthony Sherman. (1:07)

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict had his NFL suspension reduced from five to three games Wednesday, the league announced.

Burfict's suspension was for an illegal hit against Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman this month. James Thrash, a former NFL wide receiver, presided over the appeal.

Burfict hit the player while in a defenseless posture, according to the league. It is a new rule the NFL is implementing this season to protect the player who can't protect himself.

In a letter to Burfict notifying him of the latest three-game penalty, the league noted his pattern of hits on defenseless players, including one on Ravens tight end Maxx Williams that drew a $50,000 fine.

"This is not your first offense with respect to illegal hits to defenseless players,'' Runyan, the league's vice president of football operations, wrote. "To the contrary, this incident is consistent with your pattern of egregious safety-related violations, including your hit on a defenseless 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.''

Earlier this week, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis defended Burfict and said that the hit was legal, emphasizing that he did not lead with his helmet.

"His head was out to the left, as you can see in every single angle," Lewis said. "Behind, front, television, All-22, it's always out to the side and in front of the player. There's no contact whatsoever. And if you have to slow down things in high definition and go frame by frame, and you're still not sure, we don't officiate the game that way. ... I don't see how the players can be held to that standard as well."

Burfict was also suspended the first three games of the 2016 season for numerous violations of player safety rules, including an illegal hit on Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown during the 2015 playoffs. The 6-foot-1 linebacker was also fined $75,000 last season by the league for stomping on then-New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount.

During his five-year NFL career, Burfict has been fined almost $800,000 and flagged 16 times for unnecessary roughness, personal fouls or roughing the passer. The lost wages of his latest suspension would more than double that total.

Burfict will now miss games against the Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers. He will be able to return to the Bengals on Monday, Sept. 25, one day after the Packers game and ahead of a Week 4 matchup with the Browns.

ESPN's Katherine Terrell and Adam Schefter contributed to this report.