PITTSBURGH — 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.”