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Bengals strike first, but can't finish

Terrell Owens hauls in the first of his two touchdown receptions.

The Bengals haven't played the Steelers at home on a Monday night in network TV's very first prime time reality show since the October the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs in 1986. And they'll have an extra day as they prepare for Pittsburgh to think about how they let Sunday's game get away.

As right guard Bobbie Williams straightened his shirt in Sunday's near deserted locker room where the computer monitors still blinked the confident defending division champ training camp mantras of head coach Marvin Lewis ("Strike First, Strike Fast" and "Play Smart, Play Poised"), it seemed like words were the only things left.

"Words can't describe it," croaked the usually ebullient Williams, his face clouded. "You've just got to keep working hard. Fundamentals are the only way out of this mess. I could sit here and say a lot of words that don't mean anything. But we have to go back to something solid and hard work is solid."

The Bengals did strike first and fast. But there wasn't enough poise to bail out a team that can't get a complete game from all three units on the same day. At 2-5, the Bengals are in last place of the division they swept last year after making changes to their offense they felt made them better than the 2009 edition that went 10-6.

But now they are in last place with said offense perplexed and punchless after Sunday's 22-14 loss to the Dolphins in which they were blanked in the second half.

It has reached the point where Batman is looking for I Dream of Jeannie.

"If I were granted three wishes, I'd wish that we could start this over," mused wide receiver Terrell Owens, who caught both Bengals touchdowns. "Somehow we, as a team, have to find a way to get it done. The inconsistencies throughout the last four games is not consistent with the caliber of players we have on this team … it's mind-boggling."

After staking his team to a 7-0 lead in a seamless 15-play, 86-yard opening drive out of the no-huddle in which the Bengals converted their first four third downs, quarterback Carson Palmer saw the Dolphins stone them on the next 10 third downs in a painful effort that netted just 176 yards following the first drive and a season-low 156 yards passing. From the end of the second quarter, through the root canal of a third quarter, to the first series of the fourth quarter, the offense that was supposed to take the Bengals to the Super Bowl lurched to five straight three-and-outs.

For the second straight Paul Brown Stadium game, Palmer's last pass was a game-sealing interception and now it seems a very long time ago that the last pass he threw against the Steelers at PBS 13 months ago was a touchdown that won the game with 14 seconds left.

"It is amazing. It's embarrassing. It's depressing. It's every negative word you can think of," Palmer said. I don't know if there's a worse feeling than losing a bunch of games in a row. This is definitely a low for this group and a low for myself, but in no way are we packing it in. We need one win, and hopefully that's next week. We're going to do everything we can to get that win, and we need to build on wins. We're in a rut, and we're lacking some confidence because of the situation we've put ourselves in. But one win and one week after a win can change things in this league. I've been through tough situations in this league but you can get one win, then one's two and two's three. You just roll on it, and that's what we expect to do."

The Bengals defense, ripped for 452 yards last week in Atlanta and plucked for 10 points in the final 1:26 of the game before that, pitched well enough to win. Their undermanned secondary kept the talented Dolphins receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess at bay long enough to hold Miami to five Dan Carpenter field goals in the first three quarters. The only touchdown drive the Bengals then allowed was a doozy, a six-play, 96-yarder in a 2:49 YouTube job early in the fourth quarter in which there were four plays of at least 18 yards.

But that one belonged to the offense maybe even more than the defense with a time of possession that ended up tipping 33:29-26:31 in Miami's favor.

This was the kind of effort the defense got:

With Morgan Trent getting his first NFL start in place of the injured Johnathan Joseph (ankle), he limped around on his own wounded knee and helped hold Marshall and Bess to a combined 12 catches for 117 yards while checking in with a game-high 11 tackles, one pass defensed and his first NFL interception.

"We just can't put two good halves together," said safety Chris Crocker. "Because we know sometimes the offense is going to lift the defense up and it goes the other way sometimes. But we have to be consistent. Just put together consistent halves. Not a great half and bad half.

"What can you say? Can't even be mad. It's more disappointing than mad. I think this team has been on an emotional roller coaster. I feel like we gave everything we had. We're just not consistent. Go back to the drawing board. Disappointed because we're underachieving. That's probably the most disappointing thing."

The Bengals beat the Steelers twice last year with special teams, the running game, and defense. On Sunday, Palmer called them "staples," and they were missing. The wind played havoc with their punter and kicker and it leaked down to their coverage teams, but Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter kicked a career-long 54-yarder. For the fourth straight fourth quarter the defense couldn't get off the field on a key drive.

And because the Bengals couldn't convert on third down, running back Cedric Benson carried just seven times in the second half for 17 yards. The thoughtful Benson thinks his talented team is fighting mental blocks more than anything when asked about the offense's second-half vacuum.

"If you let negative thoughts grow roots in your mind, it will take away from your performance. It will take away from your joy. It can take away from everything," Benson said. "Ultimately it's a mental game.

"Why are we not? These are words you can't carry with you on the field. The best approach is not to say anything at all and stay focused in your job. I think naturally guys may have got a little frustrated. Everybody still tried hard. It didn't affect their effort, but you create something around you that adds to the barriers to your success. There's already a speed bump in there. Being negative or questioning things or even doubt just adds to it."

With everyone expecting Owens to ramp up the negativity at this point, he is doing just the opposite. On Sunday, he shook his head, saying he needed to help Palmer more. Accused of throwing his quarterbacks under the bus during his 15-year career, he got in front of it himself after two big passes went awry in the fourth quarter.

With 3:20 left in the game on first down from the Dolphins 37, Owens had safety Chris Clemons clearly beaten by five yards in the end zone, but with Palmer getting hit by tackle Randy Starks slanting through the left side of the line the ball hung up and behind Owens in time for Clemons to knock it away.

"I saw how aggressive the safeties were and we made some adjustments," Owens said. "Once I see a guy commit, I'm wide open in terms of speeding down the field. I need to somehow adjust and know that the ball is going to be short. I feel like it's my fault. Somehow, some way,  I need to make that play."

Palmer said the same thing about the game-ending interception less than a minute later when he led Owens too far inside the 10 and it landed right in cornerback Sean Smith's hands for Smith's first NFL interception.

"We had a little bit of a busted play and I tried to make something happen," Palmer said. "They knew what play was coming and they jumped the route. I was trying to throw him out of the route and he wasn't thinking the same thing I was. We missed it, and it was completely my fault. I was trying to make something happen when we needed to score, down by eight, and we didn't convert on it."

Owens, who had scored on a quirk of fate and a 37-yard touchdown pass in the first half when the ball bounced off Clemons' hands into his hands like a volleyball dig, thought he maybe, could have done more.

"He was trying to make a play," Owens said. "They had it covered. I tried to adjust, but I need to find a way to knock that ball down. That one play didn't lose the ballgame. There were a number of plays. At the end of the first half, I dropped a ball which would have moved the chains. We have to find a way to do it."

While the monitors flash "Strike" and "First" and "Strike" and "Fast" and "Smart" and "Poise," the Bengals have been overtaken by the buzzsaw words of "Lack of execution," "Little things adding up," and "Somebody needs to make a play."

"I wish I had an answer for you," Palmer said. "If it was a simple fix or a simple coaching point, it would have been fixed a while ago. It's obviously not simple, but all I know is to work. That's been my motto since I started playing football, to work and work and prepare so you get the little things right and can't get them wrong. Being the quarterback of the team, it's my job to make sure guys execute and do the right thing, and I'm not doing a good enough job of that."

It has come down to wishing and hoping and no more words.

Owens was asked what his other two wishes would be.

"I'll get back to you on that," he said.

Hopefully it will involve next Monday night's reality show.

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