PITTSBURGH — Bengals rookie sensation A.J. Green began Sunday's game like he finished the last one: With a big catch that put the Bengals on the doorstep of scoring with his 43-yard grab of quarterback Andy Dalton's play-action pass off a fake reverse on the second snap of the day.
But unlike the 51-yard grab against Cleveland with a minute left that won the game, this one led to only frustration. Little did anyone know by the time Green caught his next ball, the Bengals would be trailing, 21-0, and his 11-yard touchdown catch with 4:06 left in the half would be Cincinnati's only score in a 35-7 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field.
And that he would be blaming himself when the Bengals didn't score on that opening drive after his false start wiped out Dalton's four-yard flip to tight end Jermaine Gresham for a touchdown on third and goal less than five minutes into the game.
"I'm not disappointed in my performance or anything like that," said Green, who finished with 87 yards on six catches. "We really shot ourselves in the foot, including me, on the first drive. I felt like my penalty really shifted the momentum of the game. I take the blame on that drive."
It looked to be fairly simple. Dalton sent Green and two other receivers wide left and split Gresham wide right and Gresham simply stepped in front of safety Troy Polamalu for that fast start the Bengals worked so hard to get after falling behind Pittsburgh, 14-0, three weeks ago.
"Tiny little flinch," Green said. "I was trying to time the snap and get off the ball quickly."
Dalton ran out of room in the end zone on the next snap from the 9 when he overthrew Gresham double-covered down the seam, and the mistake was really magnified when Mike Nugent had his 33-yard field goal blocked.
"To come out of the red zone like that with no points, you've got to take advantage," said right guard Bobbie Williams.
"We did start fast," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, whose unit forced punts on the first two Steelers series. "I'd like to have those seven points they took back."
"It was huge," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We went three and out on offense. That was not good. They go down the field and go for a touchdown and didn't get it. Then we get a blocked field goal. I don't think that we have had one yet this year, and that is always fun. It brings a new energy to a team. I think it is what got us rolling."
Green now has seven touchdown receptions, two away from Isaac Curtis's rookie club record of nine set 38 years ago, and in three quarters he has caught two touchdowns against Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the same number Chad Ochocinco had against him in 13 games.
But the game came back to the false start. At first he wondered if it meant he needed to get out of the huddle quicker so he could get set sooner. But he felt like he did all that.
"I was just trying to get off the ball," he said. "I didn't hold my water."
Dalton had his least productive day since he didn't play the second half of the opener with a wrist injury (11-for-24, 135 yards) and head coach Marvin Lewis took him out of this one early in the fourth quarter to prevent anything resembling that after outside linebacker James Harrison sent Dalton to the sidelines limping on his third sack.
"I just think it was a little out of reach, so I got taken out," said Dalton, who said he's OK. "I wanted to stay in there, but it's just part of it."
Dalton couldn't string much together after that first drive because of a bunch of penalties and Pittsburgh's ability to start teeing off on the pass rush when the Steelers scored their first three touchdowns in a span of 4:14 in the second quarter. Cincinnati's second drive got hung up on center Kyle Cook's holding call and the Bengals went for three straight passes on the third series that resulted in a three-and-out. By the time Dalton got the ball back, it was 21-0. When the Bengals tried to cut the halftime lead to 21-14 or 21-10 with 1:48 left in the two-minute drill, left tackle Andrew Whitworth false-started on third-and-10 to force the punt that Antonio Brown took 60 yards for a score to make it 28-7.
"Getting down there, penalty on a touchdown, and field goal getting blocked set the tone for the game," Dalton said. "That definitely hurt us and they managed to get down there and score. They played well, and we didn't play good enough to win today.
"Obviously we would have liked to score, but it didn't happen. We had to try to find a way to get through it. Even on our scoring-touchdown drive, we came down and just ran our game and our offense. We were able to do some good things, but overall today we just got outplayed. We got beat."
Dalton said LeBeau showed him a few different things, but Harrison's three sacks looked to be pretty basic. He got his first one on the first snap the Steelers took that 28-7 lead beating Gresham. Harrison also got his next two on first down, one looking like a misfire on the line because he was unblocked and the other his first career sack off Whitworth in six years.
That's how much a 21-point lead means to a pass rush. It didn't look like LeBeau blitzed his DBs very much, appearing to get a lot of heat on Dalton with four- and five-man pressures. When backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was in the game and it was a 28-point lead, Whitworth got called for a hold.
Take away the game Lewis rested many of his players in the 2009 finale, and it was Cincinnati's worst loss since the Steelers beat the Bengals 38-10 without Carson Palmer in October 2008.
"There were a couple things that they did, but we knew what we were going to get for the most part," Dalton said. "Obviously there's always going to be a new wrinkle, a new thing the defense tries to do, but there were a couple times when they did something we weren't expecting."
The matchup between Bengals right tackle Andre Smith and Steelers left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley didn't materialize. Both left with injuries in the second quarter when Smith injured his ankle and Woodley reaggravated his hamstring injury. Anthony Collins filled in well on the right side against Ziggy Hood, an old college adversary.
"I'm optimistic I'll be back next week," said Smith, who got rolled up on under the entire pile. "I feel (lucky). It could have been my knee, foot, anything."
Smith was left to shake his head. It was first time ever playing at Heinz and he couldn't finish.
"I was looking forward to playing a great pass rusher," Smith said.
It was such a disjointed game because the Bengals offense was sent reeling, down 21-0 so fast, and Dalton didn't really have a shot in the pocket after that.
And for the second time in three weeks starting wide receiver Jerome Simpson didn't have a catch against the Steelers. The Bengals can't beat the Steelers when the only other wide receiver besides Green making a catch was slot receiver Andrew Hawkins and that was just one for eight yards.
"I thought A.J. made some plays early in the game," Lewis said. "We've got to get everyone else to make plays all the way around. We've got to be able to effectively run the football and do better. We did poor today on third downs, I think 2-for-9 at some point when I looked (2-for-11 for the game). Things like that, we've got to do better."