Surviving Vontaze Burfict: Bengals LB a handful for Steelers in multiple ways

PITTSBURGH -- With a healthy roster and the AFC playoffs in sight, the Pittsburgh Steelers want to keep Vontaze Burfict out of their backfield and off the backs of their star players.

You won't find a more villainous figure to the Steelers than the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker, who played a role in the 2015 injuries of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. His legend continues to grow in Pittsburgh's locker room entering Monday night's game at Cincinnati.

"He's doing dirty s--- every week," Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "You're going to kick someone in the face? He's doing dirty s---. I'm not worried about him, man."

But at least in the purest football form, the Steelers are very much worried about Burfict. Mostly, they fear his ability. Steelers players believe Burfict is so smooth as a linebacker that he can change the complexion of the game.

What comes after the play concerns the Steelers, too, but they know they can't protect their own players outside of blocking and tackling.

The only way to tame Burfict's mouth is to limit his splash plays.

"He's one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL," left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. "The physical stuff, you can't avoid that because that's going to be his personal touch and what he does. ... That's probably the way he was taught to play the game. That's probably what somebody told him that's how to be successful and how he can distinguish himself. He's not the fastest or strongest linebacker out there, but he does have great instincts and he's very aggressive. It's fun. You really have to play your best game or he's going to make you look really stupid."

Preparing for Burfict isn't easy because of the dynamics of the Bengals' defense and Burfict's position.

Cincinnati's "double barrel" defense features two inside linebackers who camp outside of the A-gap. Each play, the Steelers don't know who will rush and who will drop back. And Burfict is known for his ability to disguise his intentions until the last second, similar to Bell's running style.

As a result, Burfict uses his football savvy to make at least a few plays of impact each week. Dealing with the aftermath of those plays can be the biggest challenge. Villanueva saw that firsthand last season on a Sammie Coates reverse play. Burfict went for Roethlisberger, who didn't have the ball. Tackling Roethlisberger was a legal play, but then Burfict began jawing with the quarterback, whom Villanueva says is a constant "gentleman" on the field and doesn't entertain the theatrics.

Villanueva said the move was fruitless.

"It's one of those uncalled-for things where it's like, 'What are you doing?'" Villanueva said. "You're such a gifted and talented player. If you didn't do that, Ben is going to give you props for being such a good player. He's going to respect you; you don't have to downgrade him or talk negatively."

There's usually a Burfict story from every Steelers game. In Week 7, Burfict refused to shake hands with Steelers players at the midfield coin toss, spouting obscenities while there were children in the huddle, as Roethlisberger recalled on his radio show in Week 8. A few plays into the game, Burfict attempted to kick fullback Roosevelt Nix's face mask. But Burfict wasn't a major factor in the game because the Bengals were reeling all game as the Steelers ran the ball 43 times.

Most Steelers agree setting the tone early is the best way to combat intimidating players.

"There's an unwritten rule in the league [not to intentionally hurt] and you hope guys respect that," guard David DeCastro said. "It's tough at the same time. There's always kind of that fine line of trying to be smart, play physical, play to the whistle. We're worried about winning the game. We're not worried about penalties and questionable play. He's a heckuva player, smart, knows the game really well, instinctual. You don't worry about the extra stuff. You just worry about blocking him, keep him out of position."

One of the Steelers' biggest assets will see Burfict all evening. Bell thrives off a big workload, meaning he'll meet the Bengals linebackers head-on at least 15 times.

Bell, whose 2015 season ended in Week 8 on a Burfict sideline tackle that tore two ligaments in the star running back's knee, has learned over the years how to defend himself. Dishing out punishment instead of taking it is "part of the protection," said Bell, who also picks his spots with that process. He watches intently for players diving at his lower body or trying for a late hit on the sideline.

"You make sure to relax and not take any late so-called cheap shots," Bell said. "I just make sure I run the ball hard, get down on the ground and get up safe."

Especially for physical AFC North games, tight end Jesse James relies on the buzz phrase from coach Mike Tomlin that stresses composure over retaliation.

"Don't dip your toe in the water," James said.