BY GEOFF HOBSON
PITTSBURGH _ The Bengals' worst offensive stretch ever kept veering into team history Sunday here at Three Rivers Stadium.
The Bengals (0-6) got blanked for the third time time in five weeks, 15-0, and haven't scored in the last six quarters after a game quarterback Akili Smith suffered his first career benching.
The Bengals sat their franchise quarterback late in the third quarter and then watched the Steelers (3-3) take a 13-0 lead after backup quarterback Scott Mitchell threw an interception on his first pass.
Smith, who has produced just three touchdowns in his last nine starts, went to the bench with less than five minutes left in the third quarter after completing 10 of 20 passes for just 97 yards.
But on his first play, Mitchell got pressured and fluttered a ball to the sideline that got intercepted by Steelers cornerback Dewayne Washington and returned to the Cincinnati 14-yard line.
A holding call nullified a Pittsburgh touchdown, but Kris Brown's 28-yard field goal jacked the Steelers lead to 13-0 with 2:07 left in the third quarter.
The move to Mitchell didn't help the Bengals' bid to avoid their first season with three shutouts. He missed on seven of his first eight passes, didn't gain a first down on his first four series, sacked for a safety by Steelers linebacker Joey Porter with 6:32 left in the game, and threw a game-ending interception.
A shutout Sunday would put the Bengals on pace to score 97 points for the season.
The Bengals threw a fake field goal, a reverse and four completions to Peter Warrick at the Steelers in the first half. But they still couldn't score and their offense still couldn't avoid a last-minute gaffe as the Steelers took a 10-0 lead at the half.
Near mid-field with 53 seconds left in the half and looking for a field goal to cut the lead to 7-3, déjà vu blitzed. Smith couldn't pull the trigger on a first-down pass, giving Porter time to beat Bengals left tackle Rod Jones for a blind-side sack.
As he did against Miami two weeks ago in the first half's final minute, Smith fumbled. Linebacker Jason Gildon recovered and although he didn't return it for a touchdown like the Dolphins' Jason Taylor, the turnover set up Kris Brown's 36-yard field goal with four seconds left.
Which spoiled a stout game for the Bengals' defense, which forced the most Steelers' punts ever in a game with 12.
Before Smith's fumble, Steelers quarterback Kent Graham had missed on 10 of his last 12 passes as the Bengals sat down cornerback Artrell Hawkins on passing downs and went with a trio of starters Tom Carter and Rodney Heath along with rookie Robert Bean. Hawkins came back in during the second half and played well as the Steelers stalled with a series of holding penalties.
The Bengals also managed to brake "The Bus." Running back Jerome Bettis came into the day with 414 yards in his last four games, but he managed just 20 yards on eight carries in the first half.
Bettis did manage to rush for 100 yards, but
a major reason the Bengals couldn't pick up their defense is because Cincinnati running back Corey Dillon got just one yard on his first seven carries.
After Dillon had just 24 yards on 13 carries late in the third quarter, the Bengals tried some change of pace with Curtis Keaton for a series. But the shifty rookie running back managed just five yards on two carries and running back Brandon Bennett got stuffed on a draw play on third down.
The Steelers stunned the Bengals on the second play of the game when Graham threw his first touchdown of the season and receiver Hines Ward caught his first touchdown of the season from 77 yards out.
Graham, the controversial starter in place of Kordell Stewart, changed the play at the line of scrimmage and chalked up Pittsburgh's second touchdown pass in 20 quarters and the Steelers' longest pass play in six years.
Pittsburgh held the 7-0 lead early in the second quarter, when the Bengals fake field goal with 12:34 left failed at the Steelers 21.
During that drive, the Bengals started to get some big plays from their biggest names. On back-to-back plays, Smith scrambled away from a sack for 21 yards and Warrick juked for 49 more on a reverse.
But when Smith couldn't hook up with Warrick on a third-and-2, rookie kicker Neil Rackers lined up for a 34-yard field-goal attempt. Holder Daniel Pope took the snap and ran an option play with Rackers trailing, but when Pope cut it up inside and then pitched to Rackers, Rackers had to go to the ground to get it for a five-yard loss.
Graham saw Ward matched up one-on-one with cornerback Rodney Heath and hit him down the middle. When strong safety Cory Hall came up to pop Ward, Hall and Heath bounced off the receiver and Ward had no one in front of him.
Hall suffered a minor concussion and was replaced by Chris Carter for the rest of the game.
The Bengals had to punt on their first series even though Smith hit his first three passes for 28 yards, two for first downs. But the drive ended at mid-field when Smith took a coverage sack from Gildon.
The Bengals prepared to see Bettis all day and opted to start defensive tackle Glen Steele in place of the banged-up Tom Barndt.
But the Bengals held Bettis to 10 yards on his first six carries and Graham came out throwing. He hit six of his first seven passes for 121 yards to four different receivers.
In an effort to juice up the NFL's last-rated offense, the Bengals gave wide receiver Craig Yeast his first NFL start and activated rookie running back Curtis Keaton for the first time.
Yeast, a second-year player with six catches for 74 yards, replaces rookie Ron Dugans at split end. Dugans, working opposite Warrick, has nine catches for 72 yards since being named the Opening Day starter.
Warrick, who didn't get a catch until the last two minutes last week, caught a seven-yarder on the Bengals' first play.
On the second series, Yeast dropped a pass that would have taken the Bengals out of a hole inside their own 5-yard line. But they ended up punting and the Steelers got the ball at the Bengals' 49 with 1:46 left in the first quarter.
"We're trying to get our best playmakers on the field and Craig has shown an ability to break stuff," said Bengals receivers coach Steve Mooshagian. "He's quick and can make things happen."
With Warrick now rotating punt returns with the 5-8, 160-pound Yeast, the Bengals felt they could give Yeast a little more of a load. But Dugans is still the starting split end and Yeast remains in the slot when the Bengals go with three receivers.
Keaton, a fourth-round pick out of James Madison, could be called on to return some kickoffs. He probably won't play on third-down situations, but he could get some carries spelling running backs Corey Dillon and Brandon Bennett.
The Bengals like the 215-pound Keaton's explosiveness and outside speed and think he might be a good change-of-pace for the bigger Dillon and Bennett.
The club deactivated Nick Williams to make room for Keaton, leaving Clif Groce as its only active fullback.