11-30-03, 3:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
PITTSBURGH _ The Bengals' offense took the buzz out of the Heinz Field crowd with a touchdown drive that consumed 7:14 of the first half's final nine minutes. Then their defense brought ought the boos when they forced their first turnover in three games at the Cincinnati 12 with seven seconds left that gave them a 14-3 half-time lead.
The Bengals, taking a 14-3 lead on quarterback Jon Kitna's four-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chad Johnson with 1:54 left in the half, allowed the Steelers to come right back down the field.
But they knocked Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox out of the game momentarily when defensive end Justin Smith and defensive tackle Oliver Gibson combined on a sack, and then they sent middle linebacker Kevin Hardy and outside linebacker Brian Simmons on a blitz against backup quarterback Charlie Batch. As Simmons sacked Batch, the ball came out and Thornton fell on it as it rolled to the Bengals 12.
Steelers head coach Bill Cowher argued it was an incomplete pass, but the officials chose not to review it at the end of a half the momentum clearly swung to Cincinnati. A play before the fumble, Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El dropped a certain touchdown pass when he tried to run with the ball before he had it.
That followed a 16-play drive in which the Bengals flashed their balance with nine passes and seven runs. But it was Kitna's scramble on third-and-14 when he spread out the Steelers and scooted up the middle for 15 yards that kept the series breathing. It also wiped out a bad sequence in which the Bengals followed a delay of game penalty by being forced to take their final timeout with 6:18 left.
But Kitna is in a stretch he has all the answers. On the way to finishing 11 of 20 passing in the half for 146 yards and two more touchdowns, he floated a a perfect 19-yard pass to wide receiver Peter Warrick on third-and-10 right out of the reach of Steelers rookie safety Troy Polamalu for a first down at the Steeler 4.
Then, Warrick lined up bunched up with Chad Johnson at the end of the line, and Steelers cornerback Chad Scott let Johnson run wide open into the corner for his ninth touchdown catch of the season.
The Bengals not only mixed runs and passes, they mixed their runs between running backs Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson. Each ran seven times, with Dillon getting 45 and Johnson 27.
The Bengals scored first for the fourth straight game, and they hoped that meant it would end up in a four-game winning streak. Facing a third-and-three from his own 49, Kitna got so much time in pass protection that he was able to wait for third wide receiver Kelley Washington to leak out of the back of a coverage that came up to hit Kitna. As Kitna rolled out, Washington got so far behind Scott that Washington turned and waited at about the 15-yard line to catch it and then run in for the score with 8:58 left in the first quarter.
A week after grabbing career-highs with five catches, 61 yards, and a long of 30, Washington, a rookie who came in with 16 catches and two touchdowns, wasted no time hauling in another career high.
The Bengals' defense had difficulty getting off the field on third down, allowing the Steelers' first score of the game on a drive Maddox converted three third downs of at least four yards. Wide receiver Hines Ward rubbed off defensive back Mark Roman in the slot for gain of 18 on third-and-eight, and wide receiver Plaxico Burress knifed through zones for third-down catches of 22 and 17 yards.
The first one came through a tight spot between cornerback Artrell Hawkins and safety Kevin Kaesviharn, and Burress held on despite taking a shot from Kaesviharn. Then, on third-and-16 after a holding call, Burress got loose in the middle when safety Rogers Beckett slipped breaking on the ball from behind, and got a 17-yard gain.
But the defense stood. The Bengals swarmed running back Jerome Bettis for a two-yard gain on a sweep, and a third-down blitz by Hardy forced Maddox out of the pocket to force the Steelers take Jeff Reed's 23-yard field to make it 7-3 with 9:54 left in the half.
Maddox hit nine of 15 passes for 106 yards and the Bengals did a good job containing Bettis on 21 carries in seven carries in the half.
Sunday's brisk weather here at Heinz Field matched the hard-hat theme Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis pounded to his team throughout the week. With the wind coming out of the west and southwest at 14 miles per hour under partly sunny skies, temperatures hovered in the low 40s with a wind chill of 31 degrees.
In getting his team prepared to play a team it hasn't beat on the road since 1999, Lewis took the blue-collar theme to another level beyond the shovel by handing out plastic orange hard-hats to his players.
With safety Marquand Manuel nursing a slight hamstring problem, the Bengals deactivated him and dressed their newest player for possible special teams use. Linebacker Frank Chamberlin signed as a free agent only Tuesday, and hasn't played since the preseason with the Titans.
Other inactives for the Bengals: CB Jeff Burris, CB Dennis Weathersby, OT Scott Kooistra, OG Victor Leyva, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, DE Elton Patterson, and Shane Matthews is the third quarterback.
For the Steelers, C Jeff Hartings, hampered by a bad knee, got the start. TE Jay Riemersma (neck) was inactive.