Bengals become Ward healer

Updated: 12-3-07, 1:15 a.m.

PITTSBURGH - The Bengals are supposed to have one of the NFL's most dangerous offenses but after scoring on the first drive of Sunday night's game it had no answers against the Steelers' top-ranked defense in a 24-10 loss at soggy Heinz Field.

The 10 points scored by the Bengals were their fewest since the 2005 season finale when they managed just three in a 37-3 loss at Kansas City.

Trailing 24-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Bengals' overworked defense got the ball back twice, one when strong-side linebacker Rashad Jeanty forced running back Willie Parker's third fumble of the night and strong safety Dexter Jackson recovered, and once when cornerback Johnathan Joseph came up with the Bengals' fourth turnover.

But like they did after a razor sharp first series, quarterback Carson Palmer and the passing game couldn't deliver.

Palmer seemingly had wide receiver Chad Johnson open with a favorable matchup against safety Anthony Smith, but the ball was overthrown. Then, like the Steelers did all second half, they brought effective heat on Palmer on third down and when the pocket collapsed inside and outside, he had to hurry an incompletion to Johnson.

"Our offense as a unit feels terrible," Palmer said. "The defense kept giving us opportunities. I failed to make the adjustments and put more air under the ball in knowing and expecting and thinking (Johnson) would be a little slower in getting out his breaks than normal."

With about nine minutes left in the game, Joseph picked off the ball at the Steelers 17. That canceled out a questionable call in which Bengals end Robert Geathers was robbed of a safety when cornerback Leon Hall was called for a fleeting holding call on wide receiver Hines Ward 25 yards away from the end zone.

But when the Bengals got inside the 5, Palmer and Johnson couldn't hook up in the corner of the end zone, wide receiver Chris Henry couldn't get his feet down after beating cornerback Ike Taylor, and on fourth down ever-so-reliable T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a touchdown pass over the middle with 6:18 left in the game.

That left Palmer with one of the worst stat lines of his career: 17-for-44 for 183 yards. Given that he hit six of his first seven, that made him 11 for his last 37.

He finished with the second-lowest passer rating of his career, a 51.6 mark that ecliped only a 43.4 rating in the third start of his career, September 26, 2004 in a 23-9 loss to Baltimore. He finished that game 25-of-52 for 316 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions.

Both Palmer and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said the wet and soggy field conditions were a factor but not the reason for the inefficiencies of the Bengals offense.

"The footing was soft with everyone and it wasn't too good out there in the second half," Lewis said. "In the first half when it was raining, it was hard for guys to grip the ball."

Johnson had six catches for 86 yards and Houshmandzadeh five for 42 while the running game went nowhere with 72 yards on 20 carries. The longest ball was a 24-yarder to Chad Johnson late in the game.

It guarantees the 4-8 Bengals won't have a winning season under Lewis for the fourth time in his five seasons.

"The difference came down to some poise moments and critical moments when we had an opportunity in the first half," Lewis said. "We got ourselves out of a (3rd-and-2) and I thought the Steelers were better than us on third down in the first half."

With 1:36 left in the third quarter, the over-used defense gave up an eight-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Hines Ward to fall behind, 24-10, and with the Steelers sellout chanting, "Defense, Defense," the sense was the Bengals offense had missed its chance much earlier in the evening.

It was Ward's 11th catch of the game in which the Bengals inexplicably couldn't find one of the NFL's best receivers at the most critical times. He converted two huge third-and-longs, one in which he was sandwiched by free safety Madieu Williams and Hall. Williams left the game with a quad injury, and his return was questionable.

Then Ward cashed a third-and-nine, catching a 10-yarder in front of cornerback Johnathan Joseph before catching the touchdown in front of Hall.

"The guy did a great job holding on to the ball," Hall said of Ward. "We were there in coverage, and we hit him but he would hold on to it."

As Palmer and the Bengals passing game misfired in the rainy weather, the Bengals could manage just 10 points in the game's first 47 minutes. Shayne Graham's 24-yard field goal cut Pittsburgh's lead to 17-10 with 6:58 left in the third quarter, but the Bengals couldn't take full advantage of Parker's fumble forced by defensive lineman Bryan Robinson and recovered by cornerback Deltha O'Neal at the Pittsburgh 25.

With a first down at the Pittsburgh 12, Palmer had to get rid of the ball out of the back of the end zone as he was chased to the sidelines by inside linebacker Larry Foote and outside linebacker James Harrison. Then facing a third-and-six, defensive end Brett Keisel appeared to loop around right tackle Stacy Andrews to force Palmer to throw an incompletion.

Palmer was 13-of-30 at that point for just 122 yards with many of the incompletions unusually off target. And he couldn't get anything deep.

Bengals TD overturned

On the first drive of the second half the Bengals appeared to cut the lead to 17-14 with a defensive touchdown when middle linebacker Landon Johnson rocked Parker to his back, the ball came loose, and Joseph picked it up for a 24-yard touchdown.

But the Steelers challenged and the refs overruled the play, saying Parker was down.

The Bengals wasted a bevy of chances to get a double-digit lead on the methodical Steelers early in the second quarter and then melted down in every phase to end up falling behind by 10, 17-7, at halftime.

With 16 seconds left in the half, the Bengals gave up one of their vintage end of half scores when they somehow lost one of the NFL's top receivers on the goal line. They bit on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's ball fake, and when he rolled out the other way Ward joined John Stallworth with the most touchdown catches in Steelers history (64) on a wide-open two-yard catch. Ward has registered 13 of those 64 career touchdowns against the Bengals.

That came after an egregious failure to stop the Steelers on third-and-10 from the Bengals 13. Roethlisberger had plenty of time to hit wide receiver Nate Washington, subbing for the injured Santonio Holmes, over the middle for an 11-yard gain in front of a passive zone.

Roethlisberger, sacked 19 times in the previous four games, didn't get touched in the half and finished 16-of-24 for 104 yards.

Palmer missed two of his last nine in the half and seemed to be bothered by the steady rain.

With less than four minutes left in the half, Palmer failed to hit open wide receiver Chad Johnson on the sideline with a third-and-18 pass that either was thrown too far in front of him, or it went through Johnson.

The Bengals were in the hole because fullback Jeremi Johnson couldn't fend off blitzing linebacker Larry Foote and Palmer got sacked and had to recover his own fumble.

Either way, the Steelers got the ball back (only after the Bengals couldn't get the punt off in time) at their own 34 with 3:28 left and Roethlisberger carved them up underneath.

A 14-yard screen pass to Parker through a vacant middle started a drive in which Roethlisberger converted two third downs, one of them a six-yard flip to Ward on third-and-two as he worked against Joseph.

After the Steelers tied the game at 7, wide receiver Glenn Holt fumbled the kickoff at his own 20 on a hit from the side by cornerback Anthony Madison and five plays later Jeff Reed kicked a 21-yard field goal.

Roethlisberger's tying six-yard touchdown run with 8:31 left in the first half evened a game in which the Bengals had controlled the clock. After Cincinnati's Shayne Graham missed a 43-yard field goal wide right 30 seconds into the quarter, the Bengals had the ball for more than 10 minutes.

Roethlisberger rolled out of the pocket and made defensive end Justin Smith and defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene miss before leaping over Hall.

The Bengals had a third-and-two from the Pittsburgh 20, but right tackle Stacy Andrews false-started and Palmer overthrew Chad Johnson at the 5 as the wet conditions seemed to make his ball go high.

Graham then missed his second straight field goal after making a club-record 21 straight as he tried to hoist it out of the Heinz muck.

Bengals jump to 7-0 lead

The Bengals couldn't have drawn it up any better against the Steelers when they took the opening kickoff 12 plays and 75 yards for running back Rudi Johnson's one-yard touchdown run that took the first 6:37 off the clock.

Palmer hit three different wide receivers to convert third downs, with the last one an 11-yard screen to Antonio Chatman. On a third-and-11 from the Bengals 45 after a delay of game penalty, Palmer hit Chris Henry over the middle for an 18-yarder.

The Bengals started out having no problems on the wet turf six days after Pittsburgh and Miami couldn't score a touchdown.

Palmer hit six of his first seven passes for 57 yards, with the incompeltion a bomb to Chad Johnson working one-on-one on Taylor in the end zone, but Taylor had good coverage and it was overthrown. Palmer was then content to pepper the Steelers zone underneath.

Rudi Johnson got 10 yards on his first four carries (he finished the game with just 34 yards on 14 attempts), the score coming up the middle behind guards Bobbie Williams and Andrew Whitworth.

Then the Bengals got the ball right back when Roethlisberger overthrew Ward over the middle and Ward ended up tipping it behind him to Bengals safety Maidieu Williams for an interception at the Bengals 27 late in the first quarter.

But the offense then suddenly slowed in the conditions. Following the interception, Palmer hooked up with Chad Johnson but he couldn't coax completions on his next two throws.

Blitzing linebacker Rashad Jeanty blew up the Steelers' second series when he came off the edge and dropped Parker for a six-yard loss (a false start on Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca helped) and the Bengals got great field position at their own 47 on a shanked punt.

But Palmer overthrew Chad Johnson on a third-and-three and the Bengals had to give it up.

On the next series the Bengals got the ball at the Steelers 28 on another shanked punt, but they were doing it without center Eric Ghiaciuc (knee) and right guard Williams. Alex Stepanovich was at center and Scott Kooistra at right guard, but they returned on the next series.

The Steelers came into the game with the NFL's biggest time of possession advantage, but the Bengals had the ball more than 10 minutes in the first quarter. The stats reverted in the second quarter, when Pittsburgh had the ball for all but 2:44.

The difference in the game was Cincinnati's inability to convert its excellent field position on several occasions. On three drives the Bengals started on the Steelers 28, 25 and 17, and came out of those possessions with a total of just three points.

PREGAME NOTES: With rain pelting Heinz Field about an hour before Sunday's kickoff, there were fears that conditions would quickly dissolve into the mud bowl of six days ago when there wasn't a point scored until the last minute.

Steelers president Dan Rooney said about 15 minutes before kickoff that he was encouraged by the work his ground crew did in a 24-hour shift just before the start of the game. The club did replace two blocks of grass with new sod. One was a 30-yard block in the middle of the field from the 25 to the 45 just past midfield, and a nine-yard match from the 32 to the 23.

The one surprise in the Bengals lineup is the inactivation of backup tight end Daniel Coats. Coats has caught eight balls and has been the second man in two-tight sets as well as playing a slew of special teams on a unit that has vastly improved the past six weeks. He didn't appear on last week's injury reports.

The Bengals now have an extra linebacker as newcomer Roy Manning dressed for the first time since arriving Nov. 13. Special teams could be the reason for the move, or the Bengals may be thinking they'll use their three-receiver set the majority of the night and use only tight end.

Also not dressed are right tackle Willie Anderson, wide receiver Marcus Maxwell. linebacker Jim Maxwell, center Dan Santucci and defensive end Frostee Rucker.

For the Steelers, Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, along with left tackle Marvel Smith and wide receiver Santonio Holmes were inactive. So was running back Najeh Davenport, who would have been a 247-pound alternative to running back Willie Parker in the muck.

Word is the field is firmer after a week of rolling and aerating the grass surface and that the Bengals may not have to resort to wearing the longest cleats allowed of one inch.

But the middle of the field still looked treacherous and with the rain coming in buckets, cleats might not matter because on Monday night the shoes of the Steelers and Dolphins were submerged two inches deep. The all-white Bengals uniforms (and their 5-6 record) would quickly be changing colors. The teams weren't allowed to take the field for warmups as units until 75 minutes before the game.

A few days ago Bengals equipment manager Rob "Rex" Recker said he received permission from the NFL to go a quarter of an inch longer than the standard three-quarters of an inch on the team's cleats. In fact, comparisons were being made to the Bengals grass practice field, which Recker says in pretty good shape and where head coach Marvin Lewis held all three practices last week.

All week, no Bengal or Steeler wanted to say that the field conditions gave either team an advantage. Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh refuted the notion that slippery conditions would be a boon for Cincinnati's elite receiving corps because the offensive player knows where he's cutting and the defensive player doesn't.

"They can sit back there in a zone and if you know you're going to get help over the top, you don't have to worry about it," said Houshmandzadeh of the defense. "Maybe if it's man-to-man, but are the Steelers going to play us man-to-man?"

The pass rushers are supposed to be at a disadvantage because they can't get footing to push off out of their stances, but left tackle Levi Jones also disagreed with that theory because the rusher has nothing to lose while if the pass protector goes all out and slips, he gives up a sack.

The starting lineups were introduced with the Steelers offense announced player-by-player and the Bengals defense en masse. Joining quarterback Carson Palmer, defensive tackle John Thornton, and linebacker Dhani Jones as captains were defensive end Justin Smith and right guard Bobbie Williams. The Bengals won the toss with, "tails," and took the ball.

The full house then paused for a moment of silence honoring the late Sean Taylor, the Redskins safety shot to death in his home last week.

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