PITTSBURGH - Left tackle Andrew Whitworth admitted when asked if one of the Christmas Ghosts had visited him in the morning and told him he would score the only offensive touchdown in Sunday's game at Heinz Field on his 29th birthday, he figured the Bengals would beat the Steelers.
"I would have to think we would win if I'm scoring a touchdown," Whitworth said after the 23-7 loss. "We find every way to exploit it this year. If you can have it happen, it's happened. It's frustrating and nothing we want to be a part of … we're fighting ourselves right now. ... It just doesn't seem like guys are getting it … this is the NFL. You have to come out and produce every week and every guy has to get that through their head."
The Bengals wasted a gutty effort by their defense that pitched the ultimate bend-but-don't-break game against the AFC North leaders. The Steelers averaged 4.6 yards per rush, 5.5 yards per play, and kept the ball for all but 1:45 in the third quarter, but they could only score three field goals against the decimated Bengals secondary and only led, 13-7, early in the fourth quarter.
The Bengals got a season-high four sacks from four players, an active game from their front four, and a competent effort from their secondary that lost two starters by early in the second quarter as they banded together to prevent a run longer than 20 yards for the first time this season.
"At some point in the season you say 'enough is enough," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "Enough mistakes, enough BSing. That was one of those days. We all got after it. We were all on the same page. We all played hard as hell. That was a good feeling, though we didn't get the 'W,' and that's what we wanted."
In maybe their most damaging blow to the psyche yet, the only way the Bengals gave up two touchdowns was by their quarterback's two interceptions that went for touchdowns. Say what you will about the embattled Carson Palmer in this 2-11 season, but he usually keeps his team in division games. He came into Sunday with a 21-13 record in the AFC North and in the same number of division games as the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger had thrown seven more touchdown passes (55) and one fewer interception (31).
The Bengals certainly didn't support Palmer with greatness Sunday. They ran it just 14 times for 34 yards, gave up two sacks when they had a shot to go up 14-0, and committed two more ridiculous illegal formation penalties.
But like the man said, "Everybody around me played well enough to keep us in the game and I didn't play well enough."
On Sunday it was Roethlisberger managing the game against a young and relentless pass rush behind a damaged offensive line, killing the Bengals softy with screens and quick slants in a smart, no-turnover effort that resulted in 21-of-33 passing for 258 yards. Meanwhile, Palmer, once mentioned with Roethlisberger as an elite quarterback, became the first quarterback since A.J. Feeley in 2004 to have five interceptions returned for touchdowns in a season.
"Completely my fault; I feel terrible," Palmer said. "The defense played great against a good offense. I take this loss on my shoulders. We can't come in here and turn the ball over. They feed off turnovers … to give them 14 points is difficult to overcome and completely my fault."
If the franchise wasn't shaken before in this 2-11 sojourn, it is now with such an excruciating meltdown by their best player. It was Palmer's third game this season in which he had three interceptions, something he had only done four times in his six previous seasons. His 48.7 passer rating was the second lowest of this season and the seventh worst of his career.
But since this is 2010, it isn't what it always seemed. There seemed to be some debate if the first pick-six, safety Troy Polamalu's 45-yard return that tied the game for the Steelers at seven with 4:37 left in the first half, was another one of those not-on-the-same-page interceptions that have plagued Palmer and his receivers.
Palmer tried to hit wide receiver Terrell Owens over the middle on a post before Polamalu undercut the route and ran the other way and it wasn't clear if Owens hesitated or if Palmer threw it into the heart of the coverage or if underthrew it.
"I want to look at it on film," said Palmer, who took the blame for the other two.
Owens, held to just one catch on the first drive for 22 yards, indicated that Polamalu jumped the route.
"He played a little shallow. I think he knew I was coming in, right when I planted; there was not a lot I could do about it," Owens said.
Although Steelers left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley made a tremendous individual play on his 14-yard interception return early in the fourth quarter, Palmer said he never saw him. Woodley lined up near the line and then suddenly ran into a short zone in front of wide receiver Chad Ochocinco on the sideline, stretched to snare it, and had nothing in front of him. Palmer's quick, hard play-action fake meant nothing to Woodley.
"I'm not sure how he knew to run out; it was a big play-action play," Palmer said. "Hopefully he sucks up on the play-action and he didn't. Good play by him, bad play by me. … It was a big momentum changer."
The third interception, a catch by Polamalu at the goal line on a throw to Owens on the Bengals' last offensive snap, was purely out of desperation. Palmer said he shouldn't have thrown it, but down 16 with 2:09 left he didn't have a lot of options.
If all this on the field sounded familiar, so did the postgame musings. Palmer again sounded like a psychologist rather than a surgeon.
"Both," said Palmer, when asked if he's dejected or frustrated. "Tonight when you're watching Sunday night football and the highlights, and they keep showing the highlights over and over again, that's going to be dejection. Right now, it's just frustration. I don't know if anybody has words to describe right now what we're feeling as a team. "
And Owens again wondered how the Bengals couldn't get the ball to him.
"All I can do is just go with the plays that are called and just hope I can get some opportunities," Owens said. "You saw what happened in the first half. There were some opportunities there and they game-planned to the point where they knew we were running some routes; they had guys running out, Polamalu ran out, the linebackers were running out. We saw that, but we still didn't make any adjustments. It is what it is at this point. At this point each player's just got to fight through and try and stay healthy for the last remainder of the games of the season."
Whitworth became the third Bengals offensive lineman to catch a touchdown pass (Anthony Muñoz with four, Melvin Tuten with one) to cap the game's first drive on a one-yard catch.
"I've been begging for it for a while," said Whitworth, who last scored as a high school tight end. "You get down near the end zone, and goal-line situations are always tough. We had something that we saw on film that we thought we could exploit, and we were able to do it."
Palmer had great confidence in him. Off the play-action fake, he flipped it even as Whitworth was wrestling and stumbling trying to get off the line.
"I didn't think he'd get held up like he did right before he released," Palmer said, "It was a good job by him keeping his balance and making a play."
But no one had an explanation what happened the rest of the game. Owens caught a 22-yarder and The Ocho drew a 19-yard pass interference penalty in the end zone on cornerback Ike Taylor to set up Whitworth, but Palmer's longest pass after that was a 24-yard dump to running back Cedric Benson (with Woodley in the process of drilling him) and Benson made a great move to run out of cornerback William Gay's missed tackle after a five-yard gain.
That put the ball on the Steelers 27, but the mistakes and stumbles kept coming. Palmer was forced to call a timeout before the offense went backwards. On first down, tight end Reggie Kelly got manhandled by Woodley for a seven-yard sack and on the next play linebacker Lawrence Timmons blew up a screen for a three-yard loss.
"Teams after every game tell us, 'You all are hard to deal with, you just have to stop hurting yourselves,' " Whitworth said. "They know it. We have to find a way to stop hurting ourselves, or the season is going to be over before we figure it out."
After the touchdown drive and a Chinedum Ndukwe sack pushed the Steelers out of field-goal range, the Bengals were rolling again. But running back Bernard Scott's six-yard reverse for a first down was wiped out when he was called for lining up in an illegal formation. The officials ruled he was not on the line of scrimmage next to Whitworth; a call that head coach Marvin Lewis indicated he thought was ticky-tacky.
"When we have a first down and we supposedly had a formation play where we already have a first down," Lewis said. "Again, I think with the one thing they just kind of missed it."
But the Bengals were also called for it later in the game. The other big one that hurt, a hold on Owens, came on one of their four snaps in the third quarter.
The inability to overcome that penalty kicked off the Steelers 15-play drive that chewed more than nine minutes off the clock and watched them overcome three holding penalties, thanks to Roethlisberger's patient and resourceful play. He converted a first-and-30 when he winged a bullet just over safety Tom Nelson's leap for a 29-yard play to wide receiver Hines Ward. Pittsburgh's backs and receivers also slithered out of the arms of the Bengals linebackers on some big runs when they were hemmed in for short gains in that drive.
But the Bengals defense came up big when they needed to early in the fourth quarter to end that drive with no points and Pittsburgh looking to lock it away with a 13-7 lead and a first down on the Bengals 18. Defensive tackle Pat Sims and middle linebacker Dhani Jones came up with back-to-back sacks to push the Steelers out of field-goal range.
"We got after him today," said Peko of Roethlisberger. "We know that he's big and he's slippery, and he's one of the best quarterbacks at extending plays. What really helps us out is for the defensive line to get after him, and I'm really excited about our teammates over here getting a couple sacks. We're doing some positive things."
Particularly in light of the devastation in the secondary. Starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph (ankle) didn't dress and Ndukwe left with what is feared to be a season-ending knee injury early in the second quarter. That put Reggie Nelson in the base defense at safety and with Joseph out, the slot corner was manned by Tom Nelson with the freshly-arrived Jonathan Wade starting in Joseph's spot on the outside. None of the three were on the roster for the preseason finale.
But the Bengals didn't give up the big play like they did the week before against New Orleans, when they allowed four passes of at least 42 yards. Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace did get by cornerback Leon Hall for a 33-yard catch on third-and-four, but not until 8:24 left in the game on a drive that yielded only a field goal when Hall and left end Carlos Dunlap stopped running back Rashard Mendenhall on the next two snaps and Roethlisberger was forced to check it down to Ward.
"That's what they do," Tom Nelson said. "They spread you out and make you cover the whole field."
Dunlap, the second-round rookie, appeared to play more than he ever has in the base defense and was active with three tackles and three tipped balls, although he had no sacks or quarterback hits. But Roethlisberger earned his money. On top of the four sacks, he got hit eight times, led by rookie tackle Geno Atkins' two.
"Coach (Mike) Zimmer told us today that we have four games left, and we should try to be the best defense for the last four games," Peko said. "I think our defense stepped up today, but we didn't come out with the win and that's all that counts."
No wins since Sept. 26 and counting.
Even with an Andrew Whitworth TD.