Posted: 8:05 p.m.
Rudi Johnson rushed for 65 tough yards. (Bengals photo)
The 5-2 Bengals still have a half-game lead over the 4-2 Steelers in the AFC North, but that's about all after Pittsburgh rolled out of town with a vintage smash-mouth 27-13 victory that knocked the wind out of the biggest Bengals crowd ever at Paul Brown Stadium as Pittsburgh left no doubt the balance of power in the division still rests in the lair of the defending champions.
The first home loss of the season by such a resounding margin stunned the 66,104 in attendance and rocked some veteran Bengals such as Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson and running back Rudi Johnson who had seen this all before.
Steelers head coach Bill Cowher used the same formula of pass rush and running attack he has used to beat the Bengals 20 times in 27 games. The Bengals opened the door when they could only get three points after hogging the ball for 10:50 of the game's first 12:23 during two dominating runs into the red zone, leaving Johnson wondering why he was frozen out of the offense.
"What makes me so mad is because it was Pittsburgh," said Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson, who has played in 14 of the losses. "The limelight is killing us. We've got to get out of the limelight. We've beaten other teams just on our athletic ability, but when you play teams like the Steelers and Patriots, you've got to be a mature, veteran team. We're silly."
For the 19th time, Cowher had a 100-yard back pound the Bengals as Willie Parker used a few holes and a few missed tackles to ring up 131 yards on 18 carries. As the last back to get 100 yards against the Steelers, Johnson wanted to make Pittsburgh swallow its own poison. But after rolling up 44 yards on six carries in the first drive, Johnson got it just six more times for 21 yards in finishing 10 yards shy of setting a club record with eight straight games of 75 yards.
"I feel like a thief. And I don't steal. Put two and two together," said Johnson, who hasn't carried more than 18 times in a game the last four weeks. "It ain't because of me. Ain't because of me. I had 50 in the first. You tell me. You do the math. Last time I checked. That's all I'm saying. They do what they do. They're trying to turn me into a thief, but I ain't a thief."
It was jarring scenario for a team that had appeared to turn the corner with its second best start in franchise history. But against one of the NF's elite teams, the Bengals surrendered 81 yards on the ground in the last quarter when they knew the Steelers were loaded up for the run, and they had two touchdowns and a chip shot field goal taken off the board in the game's first 4:29 during a wrenching 1:31 span that doesn't happen to division champions.
Head coach Marvin Lewis, now 1-4 against his old mentor, moved quickly to insist the Bengals don't have a mental stumbling block in trying to overtake the Steelers in the AFC North.
"There's no psychological stigma. First, we have to be smart enough to have one," Lewis said. "We're going to get ready to play football next week. We'll put this behind us, and learn from it. We're going to come out, physically ready to play football next week, better than we did this Sunday."
And when it rains, it pours, right?
As expected, free safety Madieu Williams was inactive for the third time in four games after re-aggravating his shoulder injury last week in Tennessee and is now gone for the season. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham reported Sunday that Williams is undergoing surgery this week.
But it doesn't look like No. 1 pick David Pollack is gone. He may miss a few games, but the rookie linebacker's sprained knee isn't expected to be season ending after he got rolled up in the second quarter. Pollack, who left the locker room on crutches, made his second start in the base defense in place of left outside linebacker Landon Johnson.
Anderson felt like the NFL's second-ranked offense didn't help the defense enough by scoring just one touchdown with 1:57 left in the game. The 221 rushing yards came courtesy of the Steelers jumping to the lead when they cashed in the red zone and the Bengals whiffed on red-zone touchdowns in the first two drives, and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau came up with enough blitzes to break Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer's string of 12 straight games with a touchdown pass.
"I'm just sick of watching their offensive line pound it with whatever running back they put back there and that's on us as an offense," said Anderson, who also pointed at himself and the offensive line. "I have to play better. We have to play better. We let Carson get hit on plays he shouldn't get hit on, and when that happens, he starts thinking about getting hit, and we have to keep people of him."
Palmer's bid to break Peyton Manning's record of nine straight games with a passer rating of 100 plus failed almost as badly as the Bengals bid to flex their muscles with the big boys as he completed just 21 of 36 passes for 227 yards, and two huge interceptions for a 53.8 rating that was his lowest since a 52.1 against, yes, the Steelers 17 games ago. Palmer is 0-3 against the Steelers and 11-6 against everyone else.
The big play of 47 yards came with just 2:23 left in the game to wide receiver Chad Johnson, and Palmer scored his first touchdown of the season and second of his NFL career on a four-yard run with 1:57 left on a draw.
Palmer's skein of 169 straight passes without an interception came to end when the Steelers supplied enough pressure to force two interceptions in a 3:23 span of the miserable 17-0 third quarter.
"The first thing I have to say is that we can't be more disappointed about losing a football game. Pittsburgh was a better football team than us today," Lewis said. "They outplayed us in the first quarter and separated themselves from us. We didn't make enough plays early in the football game to make a big enough difference. When you play a close game, I think our guys are realizing, a lot of those plays play into what happens down the line. We let too many of them get away from us. We're a young football team that continues to learn from these lessons."
"I think when it comes down to it, it wasn't anything in particular they did. I just didn't play well enough to win," Palmer said. "I gave them two turnovers, and in both of those situations, they had great field position. When you play a championship team, you can't give them anything. It's my responsibility to take care of the ball. It's my responsibility to put points on the board. I flat out didn't play well enough to win."
The Bengals looked to get the break they needed on the second play of the second half when cornerback Tory James picked off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first time this season at the Steelers 49.
But running back Chris Perry got gobbled up by the linebackers for a three-yard loss on first down, and facing a third-and-eight out of the shotgun, Palmer tried to hit wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh over the middle and safety Chris Hope jumped the route, picked it off, fell down, and returned it 55 yards.
"I think I led T.J. too far," Palmer said.
The Bengals held the Steelers to a field goal to cling to a 10-6 lead, but on the play after Rudi Johnson ducked outside for an 11-yard run, the ubiquitous Kimo von Oelhoffen came from Palmer's blind side, tipped a pass, and the other defensive end, Aaron Smith, caught it at the Bengals 47.
Run defense struggles again
With Cowher taking a 94-1-1 record into the day with more than a 10-point lead, the Bengals run defense couldn't make a play in this critical part of the game. Parker broke a 37-yard touchdown run with the help of strong safety Ifeanyi Ohalete's missed tackle on the sideline at the 25-yard line. That made it 17-6 with 7:48 left in the third quarter and it was one long drain of the clock.
"You can't let a team like the Steelers get up, because that's exactly what they do," said defensive tackle John Thornton.
Palmer and Houshmandzadeh no doubt raised some eyebrows in their belief they're a better team than the Steelers.
Palmer: "I don't think they're that much better of a team than us. Right now, I think we're the better team. We just didn't play well."
Houshmandzadeh also thinks the Bengals are better, but didn't finish it off in that mind-numbing first quarter.
"Yeah, that's the beauty of it. We'll get to play them again," Houshmandzadeh said. "I can talk as much as I want about how I feel that we are better than them, but we get to play them again and see."
The penalties and missed tackles that had been about the only blemishes on this Bengals season until Sunday strafed their comeback chances on the next series on the signature drive of the game.
Age-old nemesis Jerome Bettis, grinding away again for 56 yards on 13 carries, converted a third-and-three from the Bengals 25 on a play that looked to be stopped short of a first down. But he kept moving the pile, the whistle didn't blow, and he got four yards.
That came after it appeared the Bengals had forced a punt when wide receiver Hines Ward dropped a 37-yard touchdown pass, but safety Anthony Mitchell was called for illegal contact. That set up Roethlisberger's four-yard touchdown pass to Ward to make it 24-6 on the fitting last play of a third quarter that was probably the worst 15 minutes of the Lewis era.
Roethlisberger had to throw just 14 times, and who can foul that up when both touchdowns came on four- and two-yard flips off play-action?
Shaky first half
Shayne Graham's resourceful 39-yard field goal with 28 seconds left in the half despite a bad snap pulled the Bengals to within 7-6.
The stats lied, but the scoreboard didn't as the Bengals tried to survive a shaky start that saw the Steelers take a 7-3 early in the second quarter when wide-open tight end Heath Miller caught a two-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger.
That's why the Steelers had the lead at that point even though the Bengals had the ball for six and a half more minutes with a yardage edge of 117-22. The Steelers cashed in the red zone and the Bengals didn't and the crowd had to be wondering what the score would have been if Cincinnati didn't leave 11 points on the field.
Palmer finished the half 14-of-21 for 134 yards, but it was Roethlisberger who left the field with a 100 passer rating at 109.4 even though he just threw eight passes. Palmer's rating took a big hit when he had a touchdown pass dropped in finishing the half at 84.2
Two crisp marches into the red zone that gobbled nearly 11 minutes of the first quarter yielded only a 3-0 lead on Graham's 26-yard field goal with 2:37 left.
But on their first drive of the game, the Bengals lost one Chad Johnson touchdown on an instant replay, had one dropped touchdown pass by rookie receiver Chris Henry, and then had a stunning 30-yard field goal miss by Graham that marked the sixth time this season the Bengals left the red zone with no points.
Then, with the Steelers trying to get their first first down of the game with 1:18 left in the quarter on third-and-five from the Pittsburgh 45, Bengals rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman gave it to them when he mistimed his blitz and was called for offsides.
Who else? Bettis, no factor until this week, made sure the Steelers got out of the red zone with something. And they had on all previous 17 red-zone trips coming into the game.
This was no different. Bettis, who had just four carries last week, had three vintage slams for 18 yards from the Bengals 20 to put the ball on the 2 and set up the Miller catch.
But Miller's key catch in the drive exploited the absence of free safety Madieu Williams. Matched up with 6-1, 215-pound strong safety Anthony Mitchell, the 6-5, 256-pound Miller outmuscled him for a 20-yard gain on a first-and-10 from the Bengals 40.
That came after riding the brilliant play of its offensive line and 37 yards from Rudi Johnson on three straight runs that had the Steelers reeling and back on their own 16.
But then the troubles began.
The Bengals had a spectacular touchdown overturned with 4:29 left. On second-and-one from the Steeler 16 from play-action off a fake reverse, Palmer threw it the only place he could over the tight coverage of cornerback Ike Taylor. Chad Johnson stretched out beautifully at the back pylon and caught the ball tumbling out of the end zone as the official ruled a touchdown. But as the crowd danced and sang under a cloudy but rainless sky, the ruling on the Steelers challenge was that Johnson's left elbow hit out of bounds before his second foot found the end zone. Johnson finished with 94 yards, but had three catches for 47 yards until the last two minutes.
No matter. On second-and-eight from the Pittsburgh 12, Palmer had Henry wide open on a post when cornerback Willie Williams fell down, but Henry dropped the ball.
Then Graham, five kicks away from becoming the most accurate kicker in Bengals history, yanked a 30-yarder to the left. He came into the game 24-for-26 from between 30 and 39 yards for his Bengals career.
The Steelers then threatened to run the Bengals out of PBS with Bettis finishing the half with 42 yards on just six carries.
Ward made a great sliding catch for 18 yards on third-and-12, but he was called 15 yards for taunting when he spiked the ball at the feet of linebacker Brian Simmons. But after Bettis rumbled for 16 yards on a slew of missed tackles, defensive end Duane Clemons answered with an unblocked sack when the Steelers reached the Bengals 30 and it led to a punt.
Palmer rallied the Bengals for the late field goal when he found Chad Johnson for the first time all day on two catches for 32 yards, and running back Chris Perry checked in with an 11-yard reception fueled by a juke on Steeler linebacker Larry Foote.
Houshmandzadeh got the call Sunday, but Henry got the start. Houshmandzadeh, with seven balls for 75 yards that included a 25-yarder across the middle in the first quarter, made a strong return after missing two games with a hand injury.
It appeared that the activation of Houshmandzadeh had a price. Unsure of how his hand will respond, the Bengals dressed all six wide receivers for the first time this season and sat down defensive lineman Shaun Smith. Smith has been the third tackle behind starters Thornton and Bryan Robinson in a position that figured to be key in a run defense that had to stop a Steelers run offense that has had six different 100-yard rushers against Cincinnati in the Cowher era. The Steelers went for 4.7 per shot on 47 runs that nearly mirrored the 4.9 average the Bengals are giving up this year.
For the Steelers, starting linebacker Clark Haggans and his three sacks were inactive as was backup cornerback Ricardo Colclough and running back Duce Staley.
The Bengals hoped the loss of Williams wouldn't hurt them in the matchup with Miller. Miller has caught two touchdowns in the last two games.
Bengals cornerback Keiwan Ratliff left with a hip pointer in the first half, but is expected to be fine.
Lewis turned to his offense right away when he chose to introduce its starters as a group, and made Chad Johnson and center Rich Braham two of his game captains. They joined linebacker Brian Simmons, James, and Mitchell.
Also inactive for the Bengals were fullback Nick Luchey, backup center Eric Ghiaciuc, tight end Tony Stewart and defensive linemen Jonathan Fanene and Matthias Askew.