CINCINNATI -- For the first time since his Bengals lost January's wild-card round playoff game to the Steelers, owner and president Mike Brown issued his public support Tuesday for embattled linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whose controversial penalty in that game helped set up Pittsburgh's winning field goal.
Because of that unnecessary roughness penalty and his broader history of similar personal foul infractions, Burfict was suspended by the NFL for the first three games this upcoming season.
"Burfict is one hell of a football player," Brown said at the Bengals' annual pre-training camp media luncheon. "He makes a difference for our team. We want him on the field. And I regret that for three games this year we won't have him, but he'll be back then, and we expect outstanding play from him. He's a difference-maker. We're lucky to have him."
The Pro Bowl defender was Cincinnati's third-most prolific tackler last season, despite missing the first six games with a knee injury. To go along with his 74 stops, Burfict also had a sack and intercepted two passes. He picked off one other pass just after the final two-minute warning of the playoff game against Pittsburgh. When he celebrated the interception by running into the Bengals' tunnel and up to the locker room door, it appeared Cincinnati would win its first playoff game in 25 years.
But moments later, a Jeremy Hill fumble, followed by Burfict's 15-yard penalty and another by Bengals cornerback Adam Jones put the Steelers in position to kick the game-winning field goal. Flagged after hitting Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the head late after an overthrow, Burfict was later widely criticized for not pulling up and avoiding contact with Brown altogether.
Mike Brown, it seems, disagreed with some of those criticisms.
"I own the Cincinnati Bengals and not the Pittsburgh Steelers, so you can probably guess where I come out on that," he said. "But I'm not allowed to get mad [and] I'd be foolish to get into that kind of discussion publicly."
Burfict's suspension has Bengals coach Marvin Lewis taking an overly careful approach with how he uses the linebacker in training camp. Lewis vowed Tuesday not to play Burfict in the preseason at all. Once the regular season begins, he won't even be allowed around the team, per league rules.
"There's no reason for us to expose him to injury because he's too valuable," Lewis said. "The sense of everything we do, he and [Rey] Maualuga, the extension of them and [defensive coordinator] Paul [Guenther] on that field and into that huddle on Sunday is key to us. So we'll continue to protect those guys as much as we can."
Guenther has told Burfict not to change his intense style of play. He only wants to see him reign in his emotions better.
"What we're going to do is we're going to put our foot on the gas pedal and we're going to be smarter in those situations," Guenther said. "We have to understand that guys are targeting you -- they're targeting some players. They're going to try to get underneath your skin and try to do those type of things. That's been my whole M.O., that we're not changing how we play, we're not changing our style of play or how we play. We're going to be smarter situationally and emotionally."