By Joe Kay
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — One penalty for holding. Vontaze Burfict has been nearly blameless in his 10 games this season, a statistical suggestion that the Bengals linebacker has finally changed his ways.
The best test comes when he finally faces the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Burfict played the key role in Cincinnati’s playoff meltdown at Paul Brown Stadium last January. His hit to Antonio Brown’s head left the receiver with a concussion, moved the Steelers into range for the winning field goal with 18 seconds left, and drew a three-game suspension from the NFL. It was his fourth penalty last season for unnecessary roughness.
The volatile linebacker’s coaches and teammates tried to get him to rein in his emotions and follow the rules this season while remaining an impact player. There was some question about whether he could pull off the change. So far, he has.
“I think mentally he’s at a spot now where he’s like, ‘All right, I’m just going to play football,’” said cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, who also drew a 15-yard penalty in the final minute of the playoff meltdown. “By far he’s one of the best linebackers in the league, if not the best. So I think he’s done a good job of letting his play talk. He still has his edge, but he picks and chooses his battles now.”
Burfict has avoided talking to the media this week leading up to his rematch with the Steelers (8-5) , who lead the AFC North and can eliminate Cincinnati (5-7-1) as the defending champions on Sunday.
Burfict and Steelers players extended the nastiness to social media in the offseason; it’ll be their first time to trash talk face-to-face.
They’ll try to get him riled up.
“I would too,” Jones said. “He’ll be all right.”
Burfict’s production hasn’t diminished along with the penalties. Despite missing three games because of the suspension and getting eased back into his role, Burfict leads the team in tackles and has a pair of interceptions and a pair of sacks.
“He is incredible in his ability to diagnose,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “It’s been recognizable that way since the very first day he was here. He’s smart. He understands plays and puts himself in position.”
And so far, he’s kept himself out of trouble, heeding the urgings that he has to change the way he plays.
“The game has changed,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “In the 1980s, he would have been on the cover of ‘NFL Crunch Time.’ He would have been the poster child. Now, it’s different. It’s a different game, and it’s evolving every week and every year, really. And that’s the thing he’s got to understand.”
NOTES: The Bengals moved their practice to the University of Cincinnati’s covered field because of the cold temperatures. Cincinnati is the only northern team without its own covered field. … DE Wallace Gilberry (calf) was held out of practice again. WR A.J. Green (hamstring), G Clint Boling (shoulder) and TE T.J Uzomah (calf) had limited practices. Green returned to practice on Wednesday after missing three games with a strained right hamstring. … Jones (ankle), WR Brandon LaFell (knee) and DE Carlos Dunlap (neck) had full practices after being limited the previous day because of their injuries.