One minute the winless Bengals were stalking an upset of the AFC North-leading Steelers early in the fourth quarter and trailing by just a touchdown with reborn Cedric Benson knocking off the helmet of Pittsburgh's symbol of smashmouth supremacy in Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.
And in the next 10 minutes it all turned to mush with three straight sacks on third down, two Ben Roethlisberger bombs, and the game's only turnover adding up to 21 points in a funky 9:23 span.
Head coach Marvin Lewis didn't like the taste of watching what he called his team "dissolve," and some players thought Lewis upbraided them in the postgame locker room for not playing with the same intensity they had displayed during the winless season. Wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco went as far as to say he thought Lewis said they "laid down," but then said it sounded more like not finishing.
Indeed, it sounded like Lewis was saying his team didn't respond well to the adversity even though it was so close with so little time left.
Left tackle Levi Jones took exception to the thought the Bengals had thrown in the towel and even used Lewis' own term of "shoveling."
"Guys are out there fighting. Guys are trying to make plays. Guys are out there trying their hardest," Jones said. "So people are shoveling. It's not just a slogan. It's not just a catch phrase. It's what we've been doing. People are out there playing extremely hard. Cedric Benson ran the ball hard. He definitely did. He's a hard runner. Chicago let him go, we're happy to have him."
Benson only ran it 14 times for 52 yards, but it was an oasis in the desert. He hit the holes hard and well. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said the team had preached during the week that the backs needed "to run more explosively, more violently, and he did."
But Benson was looking more at the beginning of the game. It took five three-and-outs to get going and when he got the first first down of the game with 4:49 left in the first half, he and the Bengals got a standing ovation from the Paul Brown Stadium crowd. The Bengals went on to score their only touchdown of the game when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick hit Ocho Cinco with a five-yard pass with 36 seconds left that cut the Steelers lead to 10-7 and finished off a 14-yard, 92-yard drive.
Last week in Jersey it was four three-and-outs to begin the game and the Bengals didn't get their first first down until less than four minutes left in the half on the way to their only offensive touchdown of the game in a 14-play, 66-yard drive.
Bratkowski said it was simply a matter of getting the first first down so he could get to the next call on his play sheet.
"We didn't play with much confidence. Then we got things going and you could see the thing pick up a little bit closer to what we would like to be," Bratkowski said. "It changed only in that we got to run more plays in the drive. You're able to use more plays off your plan to (complement) this with that and do some things off certain runs, certain play-action. We were able to use more of the base downs in the game plan."
But not for long. The difference between last week against the Jets and Sunday against the Steelers is the Bengals put together one more drive in the third quarter, something they couldn't do last week. They cut the lead to 17-10 on a 12-play drive late in the period.
But then the protection wilted with the three straight sacks. It looked like running back Kenny Watson lost two straight battles with linebacker Lawrence Timmons and right tackle Stacy Andrews let Lamarr Woodley get around him for the final sack and fumble with 4:50 left.
But the bad protection vibes had begun on the third series when one of Cincinnati's best pass protectors, tight end Reggie Kelly, couldn't fend off outside linebacker James Harrison straight up off the line of scrimmage for a sack on first down.
"Some people got beat that have been very solid pass protectors for us in the past," Bratkowski said. "Reggie and Kenny Watson. We got beat on the offensive line as well. They're good pass rushers, but we generally block them better than that. It was just individual breakdowns. One individual losing his battle."
Indeed, the Bengals have never protected as badly under Bratkowski. The seven sacks are the most they've allowed in a game since Bratkowski was the wide receivers coach for the Steelers and a year before he came to the Bengals: The Paul Brown Stadium opener on Sept. 10, 2000 in the 24-7 loss to the Browns.
It wasn't all linemen and backs and receivers. Some of the sacks were caused by getting Fitzpatrick out of the pocket to use his mobility on sprintouts. He took the sack on some he wondered if he should have tried to throw it downfield.
But Fitzpatrick's also glad he didn't take any chances once his team got inside the 10 on the field-goal drive.
"I knew we had points. I wasn't going to do anything stupid there to turn it over," said Fitzpatrick, who said the Steelers didn't really surprise him with any schemes. "They attacked some formations in different ways; coverage-wise and blitz-wise, it was similar to what we had seen."
Ocho Cinco said Fitzpatrick took what was given.
"Pittsburgh plays a little softer and they gamble a lot more than most teams as far as blitzing," said Ocho Cinco after his season-high eight catches for 52 yards. "What Fitz took is what they gave us. They didn't really allow the big play. Just a lot of the little stuff."
"The execution was not what it should have been," he said of the sluggish start. "That 14-play drive, the slants to T.J. and myself. We looked like ourselves."
The Bengals even went deep early in the fourth quarter when Ocho Cinco beat cornerback Ike Taylor. But Ocho Cinco is still looking for his first catch longer than 22 yards in '08. Fitzpatrick barely overthrew him at the goal line as it grazed his fingertips.
"I couldn't get to it, but it's something we have to do more," Ocho Cinco said.
And more is what you'll see of Benson. Chris Perry, the man Benson replaced, even sensed it.
"It's not about me, it's about the team," Perry said. "Cedric came in and gave us a lift."
Benson's 15-yard run, his longest in three games as a Bengal, not only rocked Polamalu, but the crowd and his mates.
"I think that was a great spark," Benson said. "Our sideline, everybody was excited. That kind of got everything going. Things like that, we just need to build on that and keep feeding off its energy and keep going."
Benson, looking to truly become a regular for the first time in a career that began so promising in 2005 as the fourth pick in the draft, doesn't know if those days are here yet. But he said, "If they give me the opportunity to run, I'm not going to look back."
While Perry has tried to bounce it outside while suffering five fumbles, Benson is trying to take it upfield as soon as possible.
"Initially I'm trying to break through the line as fast as I can. You don't want minuses or zeroes," he said. "After getting through that initial line, I'm looking to make big plays because we need touchdowns."
Benson keeps insisting he likes the karma even though he has found himself on an 0-7 team.
"We can definitely turn it around," Benson said. "It's starting to sound like a broken record player. But we're making a lot of changes and the team is challenged by a few things. Not having its starting quarterback. Me coming in late and trying to get into the playbook. We are challenged in a lot of different ways. It's nothing that we as a unit can't get together and pull through."