Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict's initial five-game suspension for a hit he delivered during a preseason game against the Chiefshas been reduced to three games on appeal, the NFL announced Wednesday.
Jon Runyan, NFL vice president of football operations, initially suspended Burfict five games. James Thrash, an NFL-NFL Players Association appeals officer who heard the appeal Tuesday , reduced the suspension to three.
Burfict was found by the league to have violated two rules when he hit Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman on a play with 7:58 remaining in the third quarter of a game on Aug. 19. The league stated he made unnecessary contact against a player in a defenseless posture (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7 of NFL rulebook) and he hit a player who is out of a play (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 6).
"This is not your first offense with respect to illegal hits to defenseless players; to the contrary, this incident is consistent with your pattern of egregious safety-related violations including your hit on a defenseless player during the 2015 Wild Card game and your hit against a Baltimore tight end away from the play on January 3, 2016 ... When players violate the rules intended to protect player safety on a repeated basis, and particularly when the violations carry with them a significant risk of injury to an opposing player ... you must be held accountable for this continuing unacceptable conduct."
Burfict will be suspended for the Bengals' season opener against the Baltimore Ravens and will miss contests against the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers.
On the same day the initial suspension was reported, Burfict defended the hit as legal.
"We feel like this was a legal hit. I hit him in the shoulder," Burfict told the Bengals' official website. "I hit hard, so it may have looked like I hit him in the head, but it was the shoulder. I helped him up and he said he was good and I asked if he was good on the next series and he said, 'Yeah, that was a legal hit.'
"The rules say you can eliminate a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage as long as you don't hit him in the head and I don't think I hit him in the head."
With the Bengals already missing cornerback Adam Jones to a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, this is a heavy blow to a Bengals defense that will have its hands full against tough competition to start the season. It also doesn't help that former longtime defensive stalwart Rey Maualuga signed with the Miami Dolphins earlier this month. Cincinnati drafted a pair of linebackers -- Carl Lawson in the fourth round and Jordan Evans in the sixth -- who could be in line for a bigger role over the coming months, but they can't really replace Burfict.
It remains to be seen just how costly Burfict's suspension will end up being for the Bengals in 2017.