Palmer, Bengals get an incomplete

Posted: 5:30 a.m.

PITTSBURGH - This is the one thing about the Bengals.

They never use the same script twice. It's always a Night at the Improv and such was this 24-10 loss to Pittsburgh.

On this night, a prime-time Sunday night playing in a bowl of soup named after a ketchup, the Bengals got one of those games you'd never think you'd get from a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback. The Bengals defense forced four turnovers and slowed Fast Willie Parker to a slow 3.1 yards per carry, two locks for a win against the AFC North-leading Steelers.

But not if Carson Palmer follows up the most accurate performance of his career with the most inaccurate when he completed 11 of his last 37 passes, or 30 percent a week after he sifted 32 of his first 37 against the Titans. As one wag said, he didn't even get it close enough to throw an interception.

"Offensively, as a unit, we feel terrible for the way that our defense played today," Palmer said after the Bengals lost for just the fourth time in the 32 games they've had a plus turnover differential under Marvin Lewis. "They kept us in the game and they kept giving us opportunities. We weren't capitalizing and getting points out of it."

You have to go back to the third start of his NFL career, a 23-9 loss to the Ravens on Sept. 26, 2004, to find a worse passer rating than Sunday's 51.6. That was his career-low 43.4 in one of two games in which the Bengals have failed to score 10 points. The other one shouldn't even count because he played only the first quarter in the 2005 regular-season finale, a 37-3 loss to the Chiefs.

Palmer went to his four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson a total of 17 times but could only connect six times for 86 yards and the team's lone pass play of 20 yards didn't come until 2:09 left, when Palmer and Johnson hooked up for 24 yards.

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Palmer

"I knew where he was going; I just didn't throw good balls to him," Palmer said. "I failed to make the adjustment, putting more air under the ball and thinking and knowing and expecting him to be a little bit slower out of his breaks than normal. The field threw off your timing a little bit and I failed to adjust. I missed him a number of times on critical third downs. I just didn't give him a chance to make plays on the ball to keep his feet moving."

Palmer said the much talked about grass at Heinz Field felt fine during pregame warmups. The teams weren't allowed on the field to warm up in groups until 75 minutes before the game. When the Bengals scored on the first drive and he hit six of his first seven passes, the rain had been falling about an hour and Palmer said it got worse as the game went on.

"Every route is just a little bit slower. Everything on the field is a little bit slower," Palmer said. "My footwork was slower. Receivers routes in and out are slower. So I didn't do a good enough job of adjusting to that. But the footwork is no excuse."

Palmer wasn't the only guy that struggled. When the Bengals forced their second turnover in the fourth quarter (cornerback Johnathan Joseph's interception) at the Steelers 17, they again failed to get any points from the 3 when wide receiver Chris Henry couldn't get both feet down in the end zone after he beat cornerback Ike Taylor on third down and the glue-fingered T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a touchdown over the middle on fourth down.

"I think the footing was soft - for everybody," Lewis said. "In the second half it wasn't very good at all. The first half, with the rain coming down, it was probably a little harder gripping the football. Guys struggled a little bit there. We missed some throws, and that was it."

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Andrews

One of the bigger gaffes had nothing to do with footing but all about focus. That was right tackle Stacy Andrews' false start on a third-and-two from the Steelers 20 and the Bengals leading, 7-0. It turned to a third-and-seven, Palmer overthrew Johnson at the 5, Shayne Graham couldn't lift a 43-yard field goal out of the muck, and the Steelers didn't let the Bengals off the hook this time and took the lead for good at 10-7 in the next nine minutes.

The Bengals had annexed the clock from the NFL's best possession team by keeping it 10:18 of the first quarter's 15 minutes. But that sequence led to Pittsburgh keeping it all but 2:44 in the second quarter.

"Terrible. Two false starts," said Andrews of a play he had later in the game as well. "It's nothing they did. It was all me. Poise. It's something I've got to clean up. I will."

Up to that point, the offense had three chances to add to a 7-0 lead and could offer only two punts and a missed field goal.

"The difference ended up being some poise moments and critical moments that ended up being the difference in the football game," Lewis said. "We had some opportunities, and we took ourselves out of the third-and-ones, third-and-two early in the game. When we had a chance to get some other points, we ended up missing the field goal. We ended up having some other critical moments. Third down ended up being a factor, in the first half particularly. The Steelers were better than we were on third down. They converted in the first half, and that ended up being a little bit of a difference in the football game."

And for the sixth time this season, the Bengals ran the ball for 3.6 yards per run or less. On Sunday it was 3.2 at 74 for 23.

Running back Rudi Johnson, who had 34 yards on 14 carries, said it was disappointing the Bengals couldn't get the run going even though the Steelers pretty much stayed in "Two-high," where both safeties play deep.

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Johnson

"I didn't think it was bad as last week. They did a good job keeping the field covered before the game," Johnson said. "There weren't big chunks coming up in the air. They did the best they could with it.

"They played two-high the whole game and any time you get in that situation your chances to run the football are good. We just didn't make any plays in the run game ... that was their game plan. They wanted to take away the run first."

Which was a big disappointment because the Bengals couldn't block just seven in the box. Plus, the Steelers' Pro Bowl run stuffer, strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee) didn't play.

"No adjustments. They executed early on and sometimes that happens when people have scripts and they are ready to go," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "They have great players. They have a great scheme. They did a nice job, but defensively, our guys did not blink. They moved forward and stiffened and got better and better as the night wore on, which is good to see."

Palmer noted that Parker seemed to have trouble during his 87-yard day on 28 carries that included two lost fumbles.

"We had some creases," Palmer said. "It was so tough to run the ball, so tough to make cuts going full speed. You'd just get the ball and run straight ahead and try to get whatever you can."

This is what kind of day it was along the front line. Center Eric Ghiaciuc left a couple of times with a knee problem and in his absence backup Alex Stepanovich quick snapped one ball when he thought Palmer had drawn a Steeler offside. But he didn't and when Palmer took a knee, he also took a one-yard loss.

Although Palmer got sacked only once against one of the top pass rushes in the NFL, he got a lot of pressure in his face. Particularly on third down in the second half, when he missed four of his last seven third-down passes.

"That's their whole game," said Rudi Johnson. "Stop the run and bring the pressure when you have to pass."

Palmer noticed the pressure in the second half, when he was 9-for-28. One thing about the script that never changes, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the former Bengals head coach, tortures Palmer. Three of Palmer's worst seven games (the 51.6 rating Sunday, a 52.1 his rookie year, and a 53.5 in 2005) have come against LeBeau.

On Sunday, he gave Palmer "The Amoeba," where only one guy is lined up in a stance and the others are milling before the snap.

"They have a good front seven. They have a good rush, they have a great package with different looks, different pressures, different guys coming," Palmer said. "When they're coming full speed downhill, they don't have to really worry about footing. We had to pass things off on the offensive line, so footing was a little bit of an issue. Like I said, footing is no excuse."

Bottom line? Palmer's opposite number, Ben Roethlisberger, wasn't much better with two picks, just 184 yards on 21-of-32 passing and no 20-yard pass. But he did what Palmer couldn't do and that's complete 50 percent (7-for-14) of his third downs.

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