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Big plays? Take your pick

Andre Caldwell

Posted: 11:25 p.m.

Where do you begin with the big plays in the Bengals' improbable come-from-nowhere 23-20 victory Sunday over the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium?

It has to begin and end with running back Brian Leonard's 11-yard catch-and-run on fourth-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 15 with 36 seconds left.

Or is it Andre Caldwell's veteran-like four-yard touchdown catch with 14 seconds left?

There were so many big ones in that last drive, a 71-yard walk that seemed like a red-zone drive compared to the 91-yard drive quarterback Carson Palmer launched two weeks ago against Denver.

"That's what Carson said when we got in the huddle," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We're going to score. This field is cut down compared to Denver."

Before it all began there was running back Cedric Benson's 23-yard touchdown run off a sealed left perimeter by Whitworth and wide receiver Laveranues Coles that cut it to 20-15 with 9:14 left in the game.

That set the stage for Palmer's eighth career fourth-quarter comeback and first since the Bengals beat the Jets, 38-31, at PBS back on Oct. 21, 2007.

First there was the big 17-yard punt return by rookie Quan Cosby. Then a quick-hitter to Coles for 17 yards and then a five-yard flip to Coles on fourth-and-two as Palmer rolled to his right from the 20 with a minute left.

After a spike even though he had two timeouts left, Palmer couldn't get it to his wide receivers and so he faced fourth-and-10 from the 15 with 36 seconds left.

Palmer got flushed because he couldn't find a wideout right away. But there was Leonard in checkdown mode moving across the middle to the sideline.

"I'm the last guy. I'm the checkdown, so I'm the last of his four progressions," Leonard said. "I knew I wanted to be at the five. I think the stick was at the six. That's how I gauge it.  If I get to that line."

Linebacker James Farrior had the angle on Leonard after he caught the ball underneath, but Leonard said it was man-to-man coverage so he cut it to the outside and gave a little jump at the end to get to the stick.

"I didn't think I could score a touchdown but I knew I could get the first down so I got a little extra jump," Leonard said. "It was man-to-man coverage so I just took it outside. He had pretty good coverage on me ... Carson showed a lot of poise going through his progressions."

Leonard keeps impressing Palmer, too. Everybody now. Who did the Bengals trade to get Leonard from the Rams? If you said Orien Harris, think about that. Palmer felt so good about Leonard that he went to him on the two-point conversion, a sleight-of-hand that looked like play-action and got Leonard wide open in the middle to make it 23-20.

"He converted the fourth down and then he converted the two-point conversion. Then he sprinted down to cover the kickoff because he is on the kickoff team," Palmer said. "He didn't say a word. He didn't smile or laugh. He's a workhorse. I have a lot of trust in him and I've only been working with him for a very short time. He's always where he needs to be and he's always picking up pressure when he needs to. When he needs to make big plays he consistently makes big plays with his spin moves and his leaping over defenders. That play on fourth down was just a football player making a football play."

Leonard thoroughly enjoyed being in such a big game.

"It's my first year here. The first time I played this team and it felt like it was a rival," Leonard said. "Just the week of practice and the way the coaches were going at this game. It just felt like it was a rival."

And then there was Caldwell with three of his six catches coming on the last drive, including a tough eight-yarder over the middle on second-and-10 that got the ball to 20 and really got the crowd believing.

The last time the Bengals beat the Steelers at home on Dec. 30, 2001, a savvy rookie slot receiver named T.J. Houshmandzadeh had his coming out party with nine catches for 98 yards. In his second season Caldwell had his career day with 54 yards and a T.J.-like winning touchdown on a route he broke off.

"There's no better feeling than helping your team win a ballgame," Caldwell said. "They were playing Cover 2. I was supposed to go behind the linebacker, but he dropped almost to the back of the end zone. So I just freestyled and jumped right in front of him for the touchdown. I just broke it off. Like backyard football. I got in front of him for the touchdown."

Caldwell, a Florida product, gave the PBS crowd the ultimate compliment. "It reminded me of The Swamp the way they're out there cheering," he said.

Palmer is getting that same kind of reliable mojo with Caldwell that he had with Houshmandzadeh. He has appreciated Caldwell's efforts at getting out to California to throw with him the past two summers.

"Where he was supposed to go, he wasn't going to be open. He made a decision and didn't leave any second-guessing, and it won the game," Palmer said.  "He didn't end up where he was supposed to end up, but he ended up making the biggest play of the game."

Caldwell likes the comparison to Houshmandzadeh. Tough and reliable over the middle. Big on the big plays in the slot.

"He was a great receiver and I want to follow in his footsteps. I've been studying him for year. I got it down pat," Caldwell said. "There was a lot of open space in that middle and he got me the ball."

Another huge play was right before the touchdown on that second-and-10.

"It was a choice route," Caldwell said of the play over the middle. "He played me outside, I turned inside and he threw it outside but I just went out and caught it. Made a play. That's what they brought me here to do."

Palmer has to love the sound of that.

"He doesn't say much, but he goes out and does his job. If you ask him to go out and block a linebacker, he'll block him. If you ask him to block a cornerback, he'll block him," Palmer said. "If you ask him to run a certain route versus a certain coverage, he'll do it without whining or complaining. You never hear him say, 'Well, I blocked all game and didn't get the ball thrown my way.' He understands that he is part of a team. He's the ultimate team player. When his number is called, he makes plays."

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