Johnathan Joseph (22) is mobbed by his teammates after his 30-yard touchdown on an interception return. (AP photo)
Updated: 7:10 p.m.
At times the Bengals were simply awful Sunday against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium. But with guys like linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Leon Hall coming back into the game after suffering knee injuries and defensive tackle Pat Sims hauling down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a third-down sack, they came away with one of their greatest wins in history.
Quarterback Carson Palmer drove the Bengals 71 yards and capped it with a four-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Caldwell with 14 seconds left before a delirious crowd of 64,358 that celebrated a 23-20 victory that was Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's first win over Pittsburgh at PBS.
Palmer got a first down on fourth-and-two when he flipped a five-yard pass to wide receiver Lavernues Coles and another on fourth-and-10 on an 11-yarder to Brian Leonard on the game's decisive drive.
Bengals begin comeback
The Bengals looked to be left for dead early in the second half as they trailed the Steelers with a performance bordering on the horrific Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
But Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph stepped in front of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's short flip to wide receiver Santonio Holmes and had green all the way for a 30-yard interception touchdown to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 13-9 early in the first two minutes of the second half. It stayed 13-9 because for the second time this season long snapper Brad St. Louis let fly with an errant high snap on the extra point.
And then running back Cedric Benson cut the lead to 20-15 on a 23-yard touchdown run to the left perimeter with 9:15 left in the game in which Benson outran the Steelers down the left sideline.
The Bengals dodged another bullet when wide receiver Limas Sweed got behind Joseph for a touchdown at the back of the end zone and dropped it to force Jeff Reed's 52-yard field goal that was wide right.
But the Bengals offense couldn't respond. A third-and-one call in which Palmer gave a quick pass to Coles for a loss opened the doors for an 11-play Pittsburgh drive that took more than six minutes and exploited some soft coverage in the Bengals secondary as the Steelers took a 20-9 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter.
Roethlisberger capped it with a one-yard touchdown run, but the big plays were down the field, where rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace caught a 16-yard pass on third-and-13 in front of Joseph and wide receiver Hines Ward caught a 21-yard pass after blitzing safety Chris Crocker missed a sack.
Pittsburgh takes control early
How many times have we seen it?
The Steelers drag into PBS griping about their running game and fretting about their place in the NFL elite and they always leave by rolling over the Bengals in both trenches in frighteningly easy fashion.
The Steelers were halfway there Tuesday when they embarrassed the Bengals every which way but up in springing to a 13-3 halftime lead before an angry flock of boo birds.
The Bengals didn't even have a pulse until they pieced together a hurryup drive in the final 1:06 that included a 19-yard pass to wide receiver Chris Henry and ended in Shayne Graham's 34-yard field goal at the half.
They suffered paralysis on offense, where their best drive of the day before that one ended when right guard Bobbie Williams was called for another hold, his second in two games and the club's fourth penalty of the half for 30 yards.
The Bengals got the ball back with 1:06 left when the Steelers opted to go for it on 4th-and-4 and the Bengals held when defensive lineman Jon Fanene forced a holding call on Steelers tackle Max Starks.
But at that point the Bengals had just 47 yards compared to the Steelers' 258 in a stunning response to Cincinnati's big win in Green Bay the week before.
The problem was because Benson had nowhere to go in the running game and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was loading up the rush. The only shred of offense was provided by wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's 37 yards on three catches.
As they always seem to do, the Steelers imposed their will on the ground even though their running game came in here ripped and battered at 28th in the NFL. But Steelers running back Fast Willie Parker always seems fast against the Bengals and he appeared ready to give Pittsburgh its sixth straight 100-yard rusher in a PBS game with 72 yards on 14 carries, and the fourth of his career.
That allowed Roethlisberger to bob and weave at his best, completing 13 of 19 for 180 yards and a passer rating of 116.1.
Bengals struggle early
The Bengals came into this game thinking it was time to flex their muscles in the AFC North. Instead what transpired in the first quarter may have been their most dreadful 15 minutes of the rivalry.
The Bengals had minus 10 yards of offense to the Steelers' 152 and the quarter fittingly ended with Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton lying Palmer for sack after he beat center Kyle Cook.
The Steelers went up 10-0 when left end Robert Geathers whiffed on Roethlisberger rolling out of the pocket and at the last instant before crossing the line of scrimmage he flipped a moon ball to a wide-open Parker inside the 5 and he completed a 27-yard touchdown play when safety Roy Williams and cornerback Leon Hall missed him with 1:14 left in the quarter.
The carnage continued after the sack of Palmer. Roethlisberger hit Wallace running right by Joseph for a 51-yard pass and it should have been a touchdown but Wallace bobbled it out of bounds when he reached the 10. The Steelers got a chip shot (24 yards) field goal from kicker Jeff Reed to make it 13-0 with 12:44 left in the first half.
That Pittsburgh offense that was supposedly so one-dimensional flashed all sorts of versatility when it took a 3-0 lead on the team's first drive.
Reed kicked a 19-yard field goal with 6:55 left in the first quarter after Fanene and Roy Williams came up to stuff Parker on third down from the one.
But Pittsburgh drove the ball on the Bengals for 6:25 with 11 plays, highlighted by a classic long ball from Roethlisberger to Ward when Roethlisberger got outside Geathers and lobbed up a 41-yarder to the wide-open Ward on second-and-20.
The Steelers had been put in that hole when Ward was called for interfering with Crocker.
Then the running game the Steelers had supposedly put in mothballs came flying out of the closet when Parker took a gaping hole on the right edge of the Bengals line and took off on the Steelers longest run of the season, a 24-yarder that was also the longest run of the year against the Bengals.
Roethlisberger then converted a third down when he muscled in an eight-yard pass to Wallace at the 10.
Meanwhile, the Bengals were absolutely horrendous on offense even though Caldwell opened things fast when he returned the opening kick to the Steelers 49 but it was wasted right away when left guard Evan Mathis false-started on the first snap.
The Bengals would lose 10 yards on their first six snaps. On their second series, Palmer threw a strike to Coles over the middle on first down, but it was dropped. Ochocinco then got a first down on an 11-yarder, but the Bengals were called for not having enough men on the line of scrimmage.
PREGAME NOTES: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is going with his same inactive list Sunday against the Steelers in sitting defensive end Frostee Rucker and cornerback David Jones. Also out is left guard Nate Livings, meaning another start for Evan Mathis. Also down are wide receiver Jerome Simpson, tight end Chase Coffman, and safety Tom Nelson as well as right tackle Andre Smith.
Rucker, Coffman, Nelson and Simpson have been out every game, as have Jones and Smith because of injury.
Lewis, who has started introducing individual players this season when the lineups are announced before the game, chose Sunday for the defense to take bows after taking over the NFL sack lead with nine. Before that, the Ohio State band took the field under partly sunny skies with temperatures in the mid 60s and a nine-mile-per hour wind.
The Bengals won the toss and chose to receive with wide receiver Andre Caldwell running the ball back into downtown away from the river.