BY GEOFF HOBSON
PITTSBURGH _ The Bengals' worst offensive stretch ever veered into historic territory Sunday when they got shut out for the third time in five games, 15-0, here by the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.
The Bengals (0-6) haven't scored in the last six quarters and are on pace to become the first NFL team to score fewer than 100 points since the 1945 Steelers and Cardinals didn't hit triple figures in a 10-game season.
"It's terrible, dog," said Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes, who wasn't pointing his finger at offense or defense. "I thought it was bad when I first got here (in 1998). I thought it was the worst my first year. As for now . . .it's a combination of both. One week it's the defense, the next week it's the offense that hits a drought. We're just bad. Point-blank bad. Period."
It was bad enough that quarterback Akili Smith suffered his first career benching, although Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said he would start this week against the Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium.
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 trailing, 10-0, with 4:28 left in the third quarter after completing 10 of 20 passes for just 97 yards.
"We wanted to fire all of our guns," LeBeau said. "We were trying to score some points. We were just looking to see if we could find a spark. I thought Akili played pretty good football. Most of the problems were balls that didn't get caught that should have been and it looked like he didn't have enough time to throw at times. I was just looking for a spark by putting another guy in there."
But on his first play, Mitchell got pressured, got his arm hit, and fluttered a ball to the sideline that was 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 2:19 left in the third quarter.
"I know these guys can get it done, but we're tired of making excuses," said left tackle Rod Jones.
Or as nose tackle Oliver Gibson said after his defense kept the Bengals close all day, "Don't ask ridiculous questions. Of course it's frustrating. These are the dog days. I just wish they would end."
The Bengals are on pace to score 98 points, five less than the 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the last 14-game season The record-low for a 16-game slate is 140 by the 1992 Seahawks.
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, threw two interceptions, didn't gain a first down on three of his five series, and got sacked for a safety by Steelers linebacker Joey Porter with 6:32 left in the game.
Throw in the fact that Bengals running back Corey Dillon had just one yard on his first seven carries and finished with 36 all game, and the Bengals are assured of staying No. 31 in NFL offense.
Right tackle Willie Anderson has seen it before. Like last week, when the Titans put eight men in a box and dared the Bengals' rookie passing game.
"They know we're struggling in the passing game," Anderson said. "Until we prove we can hold our protection on the offensive line and until the skilled guys can execute. . ."
Until then, teams will stop Dillon because they don't have to worry about a big pass. But the Bengals did heed Warrick's advice and tried to get him the ball in various ways. . .
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The Bengals threw a fake field goal, a reverse and four completions to 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 Jones for a blind-side sack.
As he did against Miami two weeks ago in the first half's final minute, Smith fumbled. Gildon recovered and although he didn't return it for a touchdown like the Dolphins' Jason Taylor, the turnover set up Brown's 36-yard field goal with four seconds left.
"What are we? O-5," Warrick asked. Told the Bengals are 0-6, Warrick shook his head and said, "We're going to have a lot of bad days. We just know our good days have to outweigh our bad days. We just have to learn from everything. The defense helped us out a lot today. The punter hit the ball so far, they were getting good field position and we weren't."
Josh Miller drilled a club-record 12 punts for the Steelers for a 43.8-yard average that put the Bengals average start drive at their own 22. The Steelers' average start was at the Pittsburgh 36, underscoring a solid effort by the Bengals defense that forced running back Jerome Bettis to get his 100 yards (101) on 29 carries.
"I was proud of our run defense today," said defensive end John Copeland. "(Bettis) wasn't a factor in this game."
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 s also managed to brake "The Bus." 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.
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. The shifty rookie running back managed seven yards on two carries, but 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 those were their two biggest plays of the day. And 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.
"We saw something on film and thought it was a good opportunity to get seven points instead of three," LeBeau said.
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 Keaton for the first time.
Yeast, a second-year player with six catches for 74 yards, replaced rookie Ron Dugans at split end and had one catch for 22 yards. 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 and four for 21 yards in the first half, but got blanked in the second half.
On the game's 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."