Tyler Boyd has been on both sides of the rivalry between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The third-year Bengals wide receiver grew up watching the Steelers as a native of Clairton, Pa., so he knows how heated it gets for Pittsburgh, and now he’s seeing it from Cincinnati’s perspective after getting swept the past two years.
New rules implemented this year to help make the NFL safer aren’t going to change how hard-hitting games in this AFC North rivalry series get, Boyd said. The Bengals host the Steelers on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium in the first of two matchups this season, and history says it will be another physical game.
“I think it will be that regardless (of the rules),” Boyd said. “I think there will be ups and downs too, but whoever is the last man standing is going to win. Whoever is going to get hit the hardest is going to lose, so we want to be the team to outwork and outhit them.”
“Every game I’ve been in against the Steelers, there’s been some type of aggressive hits or something dirty going on, but at the end of the day, it’s football,” Boyd added. “You can’t go out and play scared. You can’t go play frightened. You’ve just got to go out and hit. It’s hit or be hit. We know these games are going to be hard-fought, and those are the games we have to bring it to get the wins.”
The new rules, which emphasize protecting the quarterback and avoiding shots to the head, were enacted in part because of hits like the one Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster made with a blindside block on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict last December, which knocked Burfict out of the game with a concussion.
There also was the scary Ryan Shazier injury, where the Steelers linebacker led with his helmet on a tackle of Josh Malone and came down clutching his back. Shazier suffered a serious spinal injury and just this summer began walking without assistance.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis didn’t want to speculate whether that Monday Night Football game had an impact on the rule changes, but Boyd said it won’t matter.
“The NFL changed the game a lot,” Boyd said. “You can’t really hit the guys how you want to. You can’t blindside guys, like the hit JuJu had on Burfict. At the end of the day, playing against the Steelers, I don’t think guys will care. They are still going to go out to try to kill us and we are going to try to kill them. It’s going to be fast, penalties all over the place, but … hopefully we don’t get any of them, we hit them clean and let them try to retaliate and let the refs catch them.”
In other words, the rule changes will be put to the test Sunday.
Strong safety Shawn Williams said players can’t worry about that, though. He is the only Cincinnati player to be ejected in a game so far this season because of an “unnecessary roughness” penalty, which was called after he hit Colts quarterback Andrew Luck near the helmet trying to make a tackle in the opener.
“I have no idea what the emphasis is on and what they are going to be looking at,” Williams said. “You never really know. It’s up in the air for us. I just think we can’t worry about that because if you worry about getting a penalty or a fine you are not playing to the best of your ability, and that’s what you’re here for. That’s what I’ve taught myself because the games that I played after I got fines are the games I didn’t play my best because I was hesitant. I feel like you can’t worry about that. You just have to play how you know how and how you’ve been coached. You let them handle the rules. You can’t control if they throw a flag.”
Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said bringing down 6-foot-5, 241-pound Ben Roethlisberger within the rules will be its own challenge because pass rushers and tacklers have to come with added force. Dunlap said with pads Roethlisberger feels like 300 pounds.
There is no rule against hitting someone hard, but Williams said because of the history of perceived violence in this series, officials might make more of certain things than they were intended.
Emotions in a rivalry like this don’t play into it unless players let them, Williams said, and the Bengals are emphasizing “poise” not retaliation.
“You have to distinguish between being emotional and passionate,” he said. “Emotions can be all over the place. When you’re playing football, you can’t be all over the place. You can’t have that mindset. Your focus can’t be all over the place. You have to be passionate and passion stays the same. You love the game, you are playing it for all the right reasons and that’s it. You can’t be emotional on the football field. That’s what gets you in trouble, and that’s what we want to avoid.”