9-21-03, 3 p.m.
9-21-03, 3:55 p.m. Updated:
9-21-03, 7:25 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
If head coach Marvin Lewis wants to re-make the Bengals into Steelers South, one of his mentors painfully showed him and the biggest Bengals' crowd ever at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday what it looks like.
After calling a successful fake field goal with 2:30 left in the first half that led to the first score of the game, Steelers coach Bill Cowher watched his team control the clock with its signature smash-mouth style on both sides of the ball in a 17-10 victory.
"It's my job to find a way to make plays to win this football game," Lewis said. "We are not making the plays in critical situations that take to win the football game and that is my responsibility."
After falling behind, 7-0, in the last two minutes of the first half thanks to the fake field goal, the Bengals had the ball for less than 10 minutes in the second half as Cowher rolled out "The Bus," for his first extended action of the season. Running back Jerome Bettis came out of mothballs to ring up all of his 59 yards on 16 carries following intermission. All but 42 of Pittsburgh's 138 rushing yards came in the second half after getting just 148 in the season's first two games.
After the Bengals sliced it to 17-10 with 5:54 left in the game on quarterback Jon Kitna's five-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Peter Warrick, they never got the ball back. Three of the first five plays after Warrick's catch were Bettis hammering for 18 yards. Then Bettis' backfield partner, Amos Zereoue, sealed the game when he broke a draw play for 11 yards on third-and-eight just before the two-minute warning.
With Bengals running back Corey Dillon sidelined for most of the final three quarters with a groin injury that has been termed day-to-day, the Bengals' offense was no match for a Steeler defense able to tee off in the passing game and sack Kitna four times. The Bengals limped out of PBS with just 182 yards in their first sub-200-yard game since Tampa Bay engulfed Akili Smith on 168 yards last Sept. 29.
"I don't know who or how, but we need somebody to come up with a big play when the game is on the line," said Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "That can't happen. You can't let them have the ball for the last five minutes in a one-touchdown game. The only way to neutralize them is put them over there on the bench."
Wide receiver Chad Johnson, the Bengals' leading receiver, started the game on the bench in favor of rookie free agent Lawrence Hamilton because of disciplinary action taken by Lewis. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham speculated on his pre-game show that the violation occurred over his attendance at a team meeting over the weekend, but Lewis and Johnson had no comment after the game.
He did get into the game on the first series, and caught the first and longest of his four balls, a 31-yarder on the sixth snap, during a day he led the Bengals with 77 yards for the third straight week.
"We still have the same optimism we had at the beginning of the season," said right tackle Willie Anderson after the Bengals fell to 0-3 for the fourth time in five seasons. "The man said it's going to be a process, and it's going to be a process, but we plan on that process being completed by this season. Not wait until next year. I'm not sitting here making any promises, but it's still a process until we learn how to win."
This lesson has been battered into their heads: Don't get on the wrong side of a big play, and it happened in a scoreless game with 2:50 left Sunday in the first half before 64,596.
The Steelers, who usually reserve their fakery for the offense, faked out the Bengals when they pulled off a fake field goal three plays before the tie-breaking touchdown. With quarterback Tommy Maddox holding for Jeff Reed's 50-yarder, he took the snap, stood up, and found tight end Jerame Tuman all by himself in the Bengals' right flat for a 23-yard play that put the ball on the Cincinnati 9. Cornerback Reggie Myles came all the way from the left side to wheel Tuman out of bounds.
The Steelers said the film showed the Bengals rush field goals with two players from the right side, and that's where the play went. After watching Reed push a 24-yarder to the right to end the first series, the Bengals said they had a block on from the right side. But the play was made even more difficult by the fact that some players didn't get the call in time.
"It was there. I almost thought about it on the first one. If I knew he was going to miss it, I would have called it. It's something we saw and Kevin came in early in the week," Cowher said of special teams coach Kevin Spencer. "I'll be honest. I've called it a lot, but we just never got the look we've been looking for."
You could feel the air escape from the Bengals' sideline ("That took the wind out of our sails," said free safety Kevin Kaesviharn), and it took less than a minute for the Bengals to give up their first touchdown pass of the season.
On third-and-goal from the Bengals 7, Maddox hit wide receiver Hines Ward at the 1-yard line, where Bengals free safety Mark Roman, with help from outside linebacker Brian Simmons, stood up Ward, dragged him back to the 2, and appeared to stop his forward progress. But when Steelers fullback Dan Kreider and Bengals defensive end Carl Powell joined the pile, Ward got pushed just enough to get the ball to the goal line.
"I thought he was stopped," Simmons said, "but I'm the wrong guy to ask."
Ron Baynes, the NFL's observer at the game, is the right guy.
"It's not reviewable," Baynes said. "You only look for breaking the plane. It's legal to push into a pile of players."
Lewis sounded like he's going to use it for a talking point this week as he prepares his team to visit the 1-2 Browns next Sunday.
"Their guys got there and finished the play before our guys," Lewis said. "That is not good enough."
Lewis tried to engage the Steelers in a game of field position in the first half, and didn't get the punts he needed from Nick Harris on two touchbacks after the coach had passed up Shayne Graham's field goal tries of 54 and 50 yards. The Bengals could have tried the 50-yarder to break the scoreless tie with 6:20 left in the half, but Lewis didn't like the wind in the face and said, "It was out of range. It was a little longer than 50 yards, and it was into the wind."
With a pumped up Cowher bringing Bettis off the sideline with 6:45 left in the third quarter("It was good to kind of see us re-establish a little bit of our tradition,"), Bettis capped a drive that took 6:38 of the third quarter with his first touchdown of the season on a Cowher-esque fourth-and-one call on the goal line. That was a key drive, too, because the Bengals had just cut it to 7-3, but Zereoue ripped off 14 yards on the next two plays to blunt the momentum (one was a 10-yarder through a hole on the right interior) and set up the last six plays of the 12-play march, all runs by Bettis.
"It wasn't so much Bettis, but it was the fact we'd been on the field a long time and we were feeling it no matter who it was," said Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross.
A 29-yard screen pass to Zereoue through a Bengal blitz then set up Reed's 33-yard field goal to make it 17-3 with 13:37 left in the game.
Meanwhile, the Bengals didn't have their bus, and Kitna got marooned when Dillon went out. He finished 16 of 24 for 157 yards against a Pittsburgh defense that adjusted to Dillon's absence by dropping off the line.
"They played a lot more Cover-2 than we thought they would play today," Kitna said. "They had two safeties back a lot of times, and they really tried to take away our passing game. We couldn't get our running game going either. We really didn't have a running game to speak of in the second half."
Dillon finished with 26 yards on seven carries, his lowest total since he got 10 yards on nine carries in last year's opener against San Diego. Backup Brandon Bennett carried just six times for 12 yards as the Bengals finished with just 57 yards on the ground, their lowest rushing total since the Steelers held them to 54 the last time they played last Nov. 24, and this season's opener, when the Broncos held them to 51.
Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter made a big return from his shooting, sacking Kitna late in third quarter just after Pittsburgh went up 14-3. After playing in his first game of the season, Porter said former Bengals defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen helped tie up left tackle Levi Jones to make the play.
After holding quarterbacks Jake Plummer and Rich Gannon to a combined passer rating under 40 in the first two games, the Bengals watched Maddox rack up a 101.9 rating in the first half on 16 of 23 passing for 151 yards. He finished at 80.5 with 240 yards on 21-for-34 passing, which included strong safety Rogers Beckett's first interception as a Bengal.