NFL notes

Pittsburgh inside linebacker Ryan Shazier lies on the field after suffering a spinal injury in the first half of Monday's game against the Bengals in Cincinnati. (Frank Victores/AP Photo)
Pittsburgh inside linebacker Ryan Shazier lies on the field after suffering a spinal injury in the first half of Monday's game against the Bengals in Cincinnati. (Frank Victores/AP Photo)

'It's just weird'; Steelers rallying around injured Shazier

Ryan Shazier's locker sat untouched in a corner of the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room Wednesday save for one little piece: his yellow No. 50 practice jersey, which found its way into the hands and over the shoulders of good friend and fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams.

While Williams and the rest of Shazier's teammates tried to go about the business of preparing for a visit from Baltimore on Sunday night that could clinch Pittsburgh's third AFC North title in four years, Shazier spent the day being transported from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to undergo further testing on a spinal injury that left his future murky and his teammates shaken.

"I think it's just weird without 50 here," rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. "He's the heart and soul of this defense. He's the quarterback. It's just different not having him here in meetings and out there in practices. It's weird."

Pittsburgh signed Sean Spence, who spent three seasons with the Steelers after being taken in the third round of the 2012 draft, to fill Shazier's spot on the roster.

Tyler Matakevich could start in Shazier's spot against the Ravens if his aching left shoulder comes around in time.

Yet the void left by the relentlessly upbeat and charismatic Shazier both on the field and off will be more difficult to replace. Perhaps impossible. And Shazier's teammates know it.

While they've inundated him with texts and phone calls and tried to stay positive, the sight of one of the league's best linebackers on a stretcher, his legs motionless after a routine hit served as a jarring reminder of their own football mortality.

"It just brings it back to reality of how dangerous the sport truly is," linebacker Arthur Moats said. "A lot of times, especially with injury stuff like that, people just kind of get ... you get kind of 'Oh, we see it all the time, guys get hit all the time, guys get hurt all the time but it's nothing crazy.' When you see a guy go down like that, it kind of puts it into perspective like 'Oh yeah, it's real life.'"

Safety Mike Mitchell was 20 feet away when Shazier lowered his head to hit Cincinnati wide receiver Josh Malone in the back. Shazier bounced off and rolled over, pointing to the bottom of his back in obvious pain, his legs splayed awkwardly.

"That's my brother," Mitchell said. "When we walked out there, that was one of the things that really shook me up a little bit because Shay's tough as nails. When I look at him, he had tears in his eyes. I could clearly see he was really scared."

The Steelers seemed to spend the rest of the first half in a daze before rallying to win on Chris Boswell's last-second field goal . They remain guardedly optimistic about Shazier's prognosis while also a bit powerless. All they can do is sit, and wait, and play.

"You understand that the only way to do your job and help him with his recovery is make sure we go out there and execute, him not having to have that burden of 'Dang, the team's struggling. The team's doing bad. I got to hurry up and get back,'" Moats said. "I feel like if we just continue to be successful, that'll make it a little easier on him."

Trying to compartmentalize their jobs with concern for their friend isn't easy, especially when it remains unclear if Shazier will be able to walk again let alone continue a career that appeared on the verge of stardom up until the moment his helmet struck Malone's back.

Yet to a man the Steelers know this is what they signed up for, Shazier included. If he can't be alongside them, the next best thing they can do is honor him with their play.

"It sucks the injury that happened," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "I think the air was let out of the building for a while, but we understand we've got to keep playing.

"We know it's not easy. He was an integral part of our defense and our team. We keep him in our prayers. Keep in contact with him and then we try to focus on football."

Chiefs suspend cornerback Peters for Raiders game

Marcus Peters chucked an official's flag into the stands, stalked off the field wearing a smile, then ran back onto it without wearing socks when he realized he hadn't been ejected.

Well, he won't have to worry about socks on Sunday.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid suspended the volatile young cornerback for their game against Oakland after a series of antics that have humiliated not only Peters but the entire organization.

The latest came in last week's loss to the New York Jets, when a late penalty was called and Peters picked up the flag and flung it into the stands . Peters proceeded to leave the field, assuming that he'd been kicked out of the game, and was evidently undressing when he realized his mistake.

So Peters ran back onto the sideline without wearing socks, only to watch the Chiefs' last-ditch drive fall short in a 38-31 loss — their sixth in the last seven games.

"I've done a lot of thinking and come to the conclusion I'm going to suspend him for this game," Reid said after Wednesday morning's walkthrough. "I'm not going to get into detail on it. I did have the opportunity to talk to Marcus and some of the players, and I've got a good locker room. I fully trust them. We'll be OK there. So that's where I'm at."

The team was informed of the suspension earlier Wednesday, and several players seemed to be trying to digest the news. Fellow cornerback Terrance Mitchell was asked whether a message had been sent to a team lacking discipline, and replied: "I'm not really sure."

"You know, listen, nobody likes to lose, and when you've lost a few in a row sometimes funny things happen," said quarterback Alex Smith, who typically acts as the team's spokesman because few players are ever in the locker room when reporters are present.

"Coach made a decision and we're going with it," Smith said. "The stakes are too big right now with what we have in front of us. I think we have a good locker room, a mature locker room. Guys are going to handle it the right way. And we have to go as a team."

Peters has been selected to the Pro Bowl his first two seasons, and was an All-Pro last year, so his loss even for a week is crucial. Not only did the Raiders' Derek Carr throw for 417 yards and three TDs against the Chiefs in their October matchup, both teams are 6-6 and tied atop the AFC West.

"Any time a player goes down, whether it's an injury or something like this, you treat it the same, and I'm sure they will," Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. "You go on to the next player."

Peters came into the league with plenty of baggage after he was booted off the team at Washington for repeated run-ins with coach Chris Petersen. And for a while it seemed he'd cleaned up his act, perhaps having matured after the birth of his baby boy.

But a series of embarrassing incidents have once again called into question his character.

Two years ago he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in a game against the Raiders, and twice last season he punted the ball into the stands after creating a turnover — he was flagged for a delay of game against Carolina, while his punt against Jacksonville went unnoticed by the officials.

In a game against the Chargers earlier this season, Peters was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct when he got into the face of officials. The next week against Washington , he was involved in a pregame scuffle; twice got burned for touchdowns; got into a profane interaction with fans; and spent 50 seconds dropping more profanity in a postgame exchange with reporters.

During a road win over Houston the next week, Peters was caught cursing out defensive coordinator Bob Sutton on the sideline, forcing linebacker Justin Houston to intervene.

"I made it off the things that happened Sunday," Reid said of the suspension. "I'm not going to get into the details. That's not how I roll with these things. I deal with the player man to man, we discuss it, inevitably he'll come back and we'll move on from there."

This is hardly the first time Reid has suspended his star players.

In 2005, he sat wide receiver Terrell Owens the second half of the season for an accumulation of incidents that had corroded the locker room. In 2011, it was wide receiver DeSean Jackson who got a one-game suspension after being late to team meetings.

"Any time you have to do one of these things, that's not the best part of the job," Reid said, "but I'm going to do what is best for this organization, for that time. Try to sit back and evaluate it, and that's what I did with this, and this is the conclusion I came to."

Steelers angry, confused over conflicting discipline rulings

The NFL insists it isn't sending mixed messages as it tries to cut down on what it considers violent plays that cross the line.

The Pittsburgh Steelers heard one anyway.

The AFC North leaders are confused and frustrated about the league's decision to uphold Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster's one-game suspension for an illegal hit on Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict while granting Bengals cornerback George Iloka's appeal of his one-game ban for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers star Antonio Brown in the final minutes of Pittsburgh's occasionally brutal 23-20 victory Monday night.

"We've been very consistent," executive vice president of operations Troy Vincent said during a conference call Wednesday.

Not according to the Steelers.

"They screwed it up," guard Ramon Foster said. "You say you're concerned over player safety, but you had a guy who blatantly had a helmet to helmet and didn't get suspended. You had a guy that just did a taunting and you try to justify it by suspending him. That's not player safety."

Smith-Schuster drilled Burfict while the volatile Cincinnati linebacker was trying to chase after Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell during a late Pittsburgh drive.

Smith-Schuster, the youngest player in the league, then stood over Burfict as the rest of the play developed, drawing unnecessary roughness and taunting penalties in the process.

Minutes later, Iloka launched head-first at Brown as Brown hauled in the game-tying touchdown, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty.

Both players were hit with suspensions on Tuesday and immediately appealed. Smith-Schuster, a rookie, had his appeal turned down by appeals officer James Thrash, who was jointly appointed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association.

Iloka had his suspension reduced to a hefty fine by appeals officer Derrick Brooks.

Smith-Schuster's suspension came a day after the league suspended New England tight end Rob Gronkowski for one game for his ugly hit to the head of Bills defensive back Tre'Davious White.

Gronkowski took aim at White's head well after the whistle, his left arm slamming face-down into White following White's interception.

While Vincent allowed the league doesn't have set disciplinary guidelines for a "non-football act" such as Gronkowski's and said Smith-Schuster's taunting did not play a role in the decision-making process, the Steelers can't figure out why Smith-Schuster's actions and Gronkowski's actions ended with the same punishment for violations they hardly consider similar.

"What happened (with Smith-Schuster) happened in the context of a football play," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

"It wasn't away from the ball. It wasn't a hit on a kicker, a defenseless player. It was a guy getting ready to make a tackle, a bigger football player.

"Obviously we don't like the taunting, standing over him, things like that. I don't like to compare players, suspensions and things like that. I don't (but) you look at what Gronk did and what JuJu did and got the same suspension, I don't know if that's necessarily fair but that's above my pay grade."

Foster, one of Pittsburgh's representatives to the NFL Players Association, called the entire process flawed.

"There should be a committee of people (discipline) that discuss it as opposed to one guy," Foster said. "It should be a committee of people that do it."

According to the NFL operations department's web site : "Players subject to discipline receive a letter informing them of what they did, a video of the play in question, why they are being fined and how much it will cost them. They also receive information on how to appeal the fine. If they choose not to appeal, the fine is withheld from their next game check."

When it comes to appealing fines and suspensions, "cases are assigned randomly, so neither side in the appeals process knows who will hear a case. The officer assigned to the case reviews the play and hears the league's case and the player's defense. The officer's decision is final, and the ruling is binding."

Smith-Schuster, who is barred from the team facility until after the Steelers play Baltimore on Sunday night, responded by tweeting "#FreeJuJu" on Wednesday afternoon. His teammates prepared to go on without him, even if they're not sure why.

"There needs to be a set guideline on how we do what we do," Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell said. "There's no way I see two people get post-play penalties, post-play infractions that don't have anything to do with football and you get the same suspension as a guy that is making a football play in a football game. It's absolutely absurd. Like I said, it's Steelers vs. The World."

The aftermath: Bengals' Iloka has suspension overturned

Bengals safety George Iloka had his one-game suspension overturned on Wednesday, leaving him with a $36,464.50 fine for his hit to Antonio Brown's head.

Iloka and Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster each got a one-game suspension from the NFL in the aftermath of Pittsburgh's penalty-filled 23-20 victory at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday night. Iloka hit Brown in the head while trying to break up his game-tying touchdown catch.

Smith-Schuster was suspended for leveling linebacker Vontaze Burfict with a blindside hit and then taunting him by standing over him.

Smith-Schuster has apologized for the taunting. He'll sit out when the AFC North-leading Steelers (10-2) host second-place Baltimore (7-5) on Sunday night.

The nastiness that has escalated in the Steelers-Bengals rivalry boiled over Monday night. There were four penalties for unnecessary roughness, one for unsportsmanlike conduct, one for taunting, one for roughing the passer and two 15-yard penalties for grabbing the facemask.

Coach Marvin Lewis said that he and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin — who are on the league's competition committee — have addressed it with their teams.

"We don't want any of that stuff," Lewis said Wednesday. "I don't think either side wants to have any of that, the unnecessary roughing that occurred early in the game. We don't want to have a player hit with an illegal hit and then stood over.

"So I don't think anybody wants that, Coach Tomlin or myself or the clubs. So we understand that and I think both of us made that clear to the players. So that's not the look we want in the National Football League."

Tomlin met with reporters on Tuesday in Pittsburgh and said, "I'll acknowledge there were some unfortunate things in that game that we don't need in our game — by both sides."

Burfict has been at the center of the nastiness. His hit on Brown's head during a playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium in the 2015 season moved the Steelers in range for a winning field goal and drew a three-game suspension from the league.

When the Bengals played in Pittsburgh on Oct. 22, Burfict went out for the coin flip and refused to shake the Steelers' hands. He kicked running back Roosevelt Nix during the game, drawing a $12,154 fine from the league. He and Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell have continued the spat on Twitter.

On the sixth play of the game Monday night, Bell and Burfict went at it. Bell ended up grabbing Burfict's facemask and shoving him to the ground, drawing a penalty.

Smith-Schuster's hit on Burfict left the linebacker with a concussion, and he was carted off the field. Burfict is in concussion protocol and missed practice on Wednesday.

The Bengals were surprised that Iloka initially got his suspension.

"What JuJu did was definitely over the line," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said Wednesday. "What George did, I feel like he was making a play. He knew the receiver was trying to catch the ball. I don't think he targeted where he ended up hitting him.

"They suspended him because of what was going on and probably because of how the media portrayed the game. They felt that pressure. It should have been (only) a fine, and the other guy should have a suspension."

Quarterback Andy Dalton agreed that things got out of hand.

"You want to protect guys as much as you can," he said. "You can't have anything after the play. You can't have that happen."

The Bengals (5-7) host the Bears (3-9) on Sunday.

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