In the midst of the worst stretch of quarterback Carson Palmer's career, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is starting to buy into the theory it is mind games rather than an arms crisis.
"When you're in our situation with two wins there's a lot of things going on mentally in everyone's minds," Bratkowski said. "Whether it's pressing, trying to make something happen. It's a little bit of the situation we're in."
In the last five games Palmer has not only thrown 10 interceptions, he's thrown six that have absolutely killed the Bengals whether it is his fault or the receiver's. Three have been returned for touchdowns and another three have been picked off in the end zone. The former Pro Bowl MVP has done what A.J. Feeley (2004) and Chris Weinke (2001) did in the previous decade, which is throw five interceptions for touchdowns in a season. Only Peyton Manning with six in 2001 has thrown more in recent times, according to Elias.
But with Palmer set to turn 31 two weeks from Monday, Bratkowski isn't ready to sentence him to the words of the Feeleys and Weinkes.
"I don't think his skills have declined at all. He made some throws yesterday that were as good as anyone could throw them," Bratkowski said. "A couple of times the receivers couldn't quite get their feet down in-bounds. (The ball was) over the top of people where the ball had to be thrown. He made some spectacular throws. Unfortunately the three they caught were the ones that get us."
Bratkowski predicts, "He'll recover."
There are a lot of questions before that's answered. For one, will Palmer do it here, now that the pundits, led by Sports Illustrated's Peter King, are clamoring for a Palmer trade? Then there are the other pundits saying he can't recover under Bratkowski. And that doesn't even touch the unknown status of the head coach.
All Bratkowski knows is, "I think he'll have plenty of really good football ahead of him. No doubt."
This is Bratkowski's 19th season in the league, but he has never seen one like it.
"We're in a little bit of a snowballing effect," he said. "We're in a funk as a team and we can't seem to win that one game that gets us out of it and get it going. It keeps snowballing with different issues every week.
"I can't say I've ever been involved in it where it's been like this. And we're playing good teams where the margin of error is smaller. And our errors have been very costly. Yesterday the penalties and not overcoming them … it is a deflating moment when you turn the ball over and in particular when it is returned for a touchdown. … But then you have to be able to come and recover. It happens and there's a lot of game to be played."
Bratkowski and head coach Marvin Lewis were frustrated over the offense's lack of resiliency Sunday. They committed four penalties (two illegal formations, a holding call on wide receiver Terrell Owens, and a false start on right guard Bobbie Williams) and they could never recover for a first down on all four drives. Meanwhile, the Steelers launched a 15-play drive that lapped early into the fourth quarter with a 13-7 lead by overcoming three holding penalties on that same drive for first downs.
Lewis and Bratkowski insist the refs were picking hairs when they said running back Bernard Scott wasn't properly on the line covering left tackle Andrew Whitworth, an odd late flag that wiped out Scott's first down run on a reverse on the second series of the game. Bratkowski figures it's called half the time.
"He could have been that much (inches) further up. Maybe. Some crews are a little bit tighter with it," Bratkowski said. "Some crews aren't. He knew he needed to be on the line of scrimmage. He stepped up. He just didn't confirm and we want the guys to look outside and confirm with the official that 'I'm OK.' The thing was it was an unbalanced formation so the official wasn't sure right away if he needed to be on or off."
Bratkowski wishes Scott would have checked with the ref, but that wouldn't have helped when it was called again early in the fourth quarter.
"We had the wrong personnel in the game," he said.
The Bengals went into the game with a fullback for the first time this season and the thinking was they'd used a little more of the set of two backs and two receivers instead of three receivers in an effort to run the ball against the top-ranked Steelers run defense. But Chris Pressley played only about six snaps while Scott and running back Cedric Benson combined to carry it just 14 times.
Bratkowski points to the penalties taking the heart out of the running game.
"I counted it up and we had what I would call 10 mixed-down plays in the second half prior to going in the one-minute," said Bratkowski of first- and second-down plays. "And three of those were first-and-15 or second-and-15. Of those mixed-down plays, three were 15 yards to go and I think in those 10 plays we threw it six times and ran it four. The next time we're in third down having to pick it up or in one-minute drill. We never got ourselves into a rhythm."
That didn't help Palmer and neither did not having tight end Jermaine Gresham, his third-leading receiver. Gresham missed the week of practice with his family when his grandmother died and he didn't get into Pittsburgh until midnight Sunday. He ended up playing just four snaps.
"He was in a tough situation and had a hard, difficult week," Bratkowski said. "It would've been unfair to him."