BY GEOFF HOBSON
This was the four-game stretch that was supposed to haul the Bengals back into mankind.
The Cowboys and Patriots on the road. The Steelers and Cardinals at home. No .500 club in sight.
Instead, only the Cardinals are left here next Sunday and the Bengals are 0-3 after getting beat, 87-47, against teams that were 10-21 when they kicked off.
Sunday's 48-28 loss at Paul Brown Stadium was as ugly as it sounds. Eight fumbles. Four sacks. A 2-10 record. Same quotes. Giving up 48 points to a team that hadn't scored more than 24 all season.
"To have that happen at home, that's tough," said cornerback Rodney Heath after the Bengals gave up their most points since allowing 49 to the Steelers five years ago.
"We stopped them in Pittsburgh and then we can't stop them here," Heath said.
To make the waters muddier, Akili Smith failed to get a grip on the quarterback job by fumbling three times and hitting just five of 14 passes in the dreadful second half.
With Scott Mitchell's sprained left knee upgraded from questionable to probable for next week, coach Dick LeBeau waved off making a decision until most likely Monday.
But the waters weren't that muddy to see another big milestone day for Bengals running back Corey Dillon. He gouged Pittsburgh's seventh best NFL defense for 128 yards on 23 carries to become the eighth man in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards (1,062) in his first four seasons. He also tied James Brooks' Bengals record of 17 100-yard career games.
But that was all the 63,925 had to chew on at PBS.
Throw in that Bengals punt returners Craig Yeast and Peter Warrick fumbled three times, the Steelers' No. 29 pass offense converted seven of its first nine third-down situations, Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart threw three touchdown passes for the first time since 1997, and Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson thought back to the day he signed his contact extension back in June.
"I thought it would be up and down, but I didn't think it would be like this," Anderson said. "I'm not sorry (for signing). I'm disappointed at the circumstances we're in right now and I worry about some of my other key free agents are thinking about next year because I'm here for another six years and I don't want to be by myself."
Proof the Bengals are still on the 1990s treadmill came when Anderson put out his annual call for more veteran leadership. He says the Bengals have a knot of leaders, but not enough.
"We need more players to step up and be leaders," Anderson said. "If everybody is out there following, if they're waiting for Takeo (Spikes) to make a play, or such and such to make a play, or Corey to make a play or other people to make the block, we need more leaders and just not everybody following. You need more guys to step up to the forefront and take control, being accountable for what's going on around here."
The Bengals went back to their pre-LeBeau days of unraveling when one play goes bad.
Take the last 1:31 of the third quarter.
With the Steelers leading, 31-21, outside linebacker Jason Gildon swooped in from the inside on a stunt to force Smith's sixth sack and lost fumble of the season at the Cincinnati 7.
On the next play, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis barged into the end zone in a game he finished with 93 yards on 23 carries.
Then on the last play of the quarter, Bengals center Rich Braham fired a snap over Smith's head in the shotgun formation. When Smith couldn't fall on it, Gildon went to the ground to scoop up the ball and race 22 yards for another touchdown when no Bengal touched him while he was on the ground.
"The well just broke, man, everything just came out," Anderson said. "What can you do to stop that? To teach guys to get their mindset back after one thing goes bad and to go on to the next play and not worry about the last play? How can a coach control that? A coach can't control some of the things that we did that cost us today."
As for accountability, the defense took the blame for Sunday's problems. It wasn't so much Stewart's passing as it was his scrambling on two key third-down plays that beat the Bengals.
And if it wasn't his scrambling it was his third-down passing, which is how he got more than half his 182 yards. He was 6-for-9 for 92 yards and two touchdowns on third down.
Thanks to the NFL's second-best running game, the Bengals traded touchdowns with the Steelers on the game's first two series.
"For the first time this year, we were feeding off each other, offense and defense picking each other up," said Bengals defensive end Vaughn Booker. "But you can't blame the offense today. You have to put it on us. With the way Corey was running and the way Akili looked comfortable, we had to take advantage."
Continued from Homepage
The Bengals couldn't keep pace in a 14-14 game when Yeast's fumble set up a 30-yard touchdown drive.
Then Stewart got loose on a three-yard scramble up the middle on third-and-two to set up Kris Brown's 44-yard field goal with 16 seconds left in the second half that made it 24-14.
Booker had Stewart hemmed in as he bolted at him from the outside. But Stewart cut inside Booker to get the extra yard.
"I'm trying to make a play there," Booker said. "I had the right depth, but I took a gamble. The kind of player he is, it's tough to gamble, but that's what he makes you do."
Still, when the tireless Dillon lugged his team back to 24-21 on a four-yard touchdown run to end the first series of the second half, the defense sagged again.
On the next series, Stewart faced a third-and-10 from his 38, and he split a seam up the middle for a 12-yard scramble in the face of an all-out blitz. Three plays later, receiver Bobby Shaw beat Bengals strong safety Corey Hall for a 45-yard touchdown pass out of a three-receiver set.
"We contained him, but where he hurt us was up the middle," said Bengals outside linebacker Adrian Ross of Stewart. "We sent seven guys, but they kept seven guys in with the tight end blocking and nobody got off the blocks. Two guys must have been in one gap because (Stewart) went up the middle."
After hitting his first five passes for 49 yards, Smith finished the game 10-for-20 with 129 yards and his first touchdown pass since Oct. 1. But he may not have won another chance to start next Sunday against Arizona.
Smith had a solid first half and he did break his drought of 30 straight quarters without a touchdown pass when he hit Warrick from five yards out with 2:50 left in the game.
Many of his teammates thought Smith played well, but the nightmarish third quarter has the Bengals in another quarterback quandary.
In the fourth quarter, Gildon stripped Smith of the ball again for the Bengals' eighth fumble of the day, but it was recovered by Anderson.
Stewart and Smith came into the game rated as the league's two worst quarterbacks, but were better than advertised early.
Smith finished the first half 5-for-6 passing, but he couldn't get any more chances because Pittsburgh had the ball nearly twice as long as the Bengals at 19:48-10:12.
That's because Stewart finished the first half 10-for-17 for 137 yards, a gold mine for an offense averaging just 150 passing yards per game.
The Bengals and Steelers weren't supposed to score, right?
Except both teams scored on their first two possessions for a 14-14 tie just 1:04 in the second quarter.
But seconds after the Bengals staged the first defensive stop of the day Yeast, fumbled the ball back to the Steelers at the Cincinnati 36.
That turned into tight end Mark Bruener's 11-yard touchdown catch to give Pittsburgh a 21-14 lead with nine minutes left in the second quarter.
Dillon tied the game at 14 with a 20-yard burst off the left side as he racked up 83 yards on his first nine carries.
The Bengals wasted no time putting the NFL's second-ranked running game into action when reserve running back Brandon Bennett broke off the right side for a 37-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7 less than five minutes into the game.
Bennett followed right guard Mike Goff's kick-out block on Gildon and down-field blocks by tight end Tony McGee and Warrick.
Mitchell's sprained left knee didn't respond during warmups, so the Bengals went with Smith.
At about 10:15 a.m., Mitchell and offensive coordinator Ken Anderson went on the field with trainer Paul Sparling. Five minutes later, they call came off the field after Mitchell tried dropping back and passing a handful of times.
"When I tried to go full speed, it just caught on me," Mitchell said. "I could feel it catching. I just couldn't do it."
But Mitchell could play in an emergency, so he dressed as the third quarterback behind Smith and Scott Covington. Smith, benched after the 23-6 loss in Dallas, got pulled in favor of Mitchell during the third quarter of last month's 15-0 loss to these Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The Bengals' Sunday morning deactivations were linebacker Marc Megna, defensive lineman Jevon Langford and safety/linebacker JoJuan Armour.