CINCINNATI — Linebacker Vontaze Burfict missed the first three games last season because of his hit to Antonio Brown’s head in the playoffs. He’ll miss the first five this season thanks to another rattling hit, this time during a preseason game.

The NFL has suspended the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive leader for leveling a Chiefs running back in violation of its player safety rules, the latest in Burfict’s history of egregious hits that have drawn fines and suspensions.

Burfict hit running back Anthony Sherman in the chest this month during a pass play in which he was not the intended receiver, knocking him to the ground. The NFL has been cracking down on such hits as part of its emphasis on player safety.

Burfict was suspended for his hit to Antonio Brown’s head on an incomplete pass during a first-round playoff game in the 2015 season. The resulting personal foul moved the Steelers into field goal range in the closing seconds for an 18-16 victory at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals were off on Monday after returning from a preseason game in Washington. They released a statement defending Burfict in the face of his latest punishment.

“The film shows that the hit was legal, that Vontaze engaged his opponent from the front, and that contact was shoulder-to-chest,” the statement said.

A player doesn’t have to draw a penalty to be fined or suspended by the league, which has cracked down on dangerous hits as part of its effort to protect defenseless players. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy pointed out in an email to The Associated Press that the league’s rulebook bans “unnecessary contact” against players who aren’t in position to defend themselves.

Also, the rules prohibit “unnecessary roughness” against a player who isn’t involved in a play. Sherman was coming out of the backfield but had his back to the quarterback and wasn’t the intended receiver when Burfict leveled him — the pass went down the field.

Burfict could have easily avoided the hit, which knocked Sherman to the ground. The running back was slow to get up but stayed in the game.

The Bengals will open the season with Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones suspended. The league suspended Jones one game for his latest arrest and misdemeanor conviction in the offseason.

Burfict and Jones were behind one of the greatest meltdowns in playoff history. Burfict’s hit on Brown moved the Steelers into field goal range, and Jones bumped an official during the ensuing on-field disagreement, drawing another penalty that turned it into a 26-yard kick with 14 seconds left.

The meltdown made it five straight seasons that the Bengals reached the playoffs and lost in the opening round, an NFL record. They’re without a playoff win since 1990, the sixth longest streak of postseason futility in league history. They went 6-9-1 last season and failed to reach the playoffs.

Bengals owner Mike Brown and coach Marvin Lewis have staunchly defending Burfict during his six seasons in Cincinnati, even as his fines and suspensions piled up. The team said in its statement that it will support Burfict through his appeals process for the latest penalty.

During the team’s annual preseason media luncheon last month, Brown expressed admiration for not only Jones but Burfict as well.

“He’s had these things that got him suspended on-field,” Brown said of the linebacker. “He has suffered from that. We have, too. We don’t want it. He knows that. He’s grown up, too. He’s a heck of a player, but he has to toe the line and he’s been asked to do that.”

Burfict had an interception return for a touchdown during Cincinnati’s 23-17 preseason loss at Washington on Sunday. He picked off Kirk Cousins’ pass and stiff-armed the quarterback to get into the end zone, then jumped into the stands.


For more NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL