10-7-01, 2:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
PITTSBURGH _ Heavyweight running backs Jerome Bettis and Corey Dillon traded punches in the first half and the Bengals defense emerged bloodied and trailing, 10-0, at halftime.
After drilling the Bengals on the ground for 168 yards, the Steelers' third worst pass offense in the NFL woke up as quarterback Kordell Stewart two-minute drilled the Steelers to inside the 10 in the final seconds of the half. But Bengals tackle Oliver Gibson recovered a fumbled snap and the Bengals escaped to the locker room.
It was the only thing that went right for the Bengals in a dreadful first half.
After cornerback Rodney Heath and strong safety Chris Carter dropped end-zone interceptions that would have stopped two Pittsburgh drives, the Bengals got their running game going with Dillon picking up 55 yards on his first 12 carries. The last six came on a third-and-one in which Dillon spun away from inside linebacker Earl Holmes to get the first down and the Bengals trailing, 3-0.
But it turned out to be the last yards he would get in the half.
On the next play, Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna threw his fourth interception in two games when receiver Chad Johnson surprised him with a double move and when he threw it short, Steelers
cornerback Chad Scott picked it off.
The Steelers then went 72 yards in 10 plays, with Stewart baking the Bengals on three key plays.
Stewart's option pitch to the left outside completely fooled the Bengals on running back Amos Zereoue's 22-yard run. He faked a screen to the left and ran right for 11 yards. And he finished off the drive on third down with an eight-yard run up the middle after he spread out the Bengals with five receivers for a touchdown and the 10-0 lead with 5:21 left in the half
The Bengals had a shot at him, but cornerback Mark Roman missed Stewart at the 3 on a day missed tackles were the norm.
Bettis, the Pittsburgh running back who needed 54 yards to get 10,000 career yards, got nearly twice that in a first half he already logged his ninth career 100-yard day against the Bengals when he punished them 12 times for 103 yards.
After Hank Poteat's 19-yard punt return, Bettis ripped off runs of 11 and eight yards to set up Kris Brown's 21-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead early in the second quarter.
The Bengals' run defense, gouged in San Diego last week, took a hit Sunday when it lost defensive tackle Tony Williams in the first quarter with an ankle injury, but he returned after an X-Ray.
Bettis almost got to 10,000 on Pittsburgh's second play when the 255-pounder blew up strong safety Cory Hall on his way to a 48-yard run that put the ball on the Bengals 5.
But the Steelers, who had failed to score a touchdown on their four previous red-zone trips this season, didn't get one this time despite three cracks by Bettis. The last came on fourth and a foot for a touchdown, when linebacker Canute Curtis stormed the midde to stack up the play back at the 1-yard line.
Dillon ran the ball well until his last carry of the half, when outside linebacker Joey Porter penetrated past tackles Willie Anderson and a pulling Richmond Webb to nail Dillon for a four-yard loss.
The 64,000 yellow seats that greeted the Bengals when they walked into the first game ever here at Heinz Field Sunday were as subtle as the importance of Sunday's game.
The Bengals haven't been 2-0 in the AFC Central since 1995 and were trying to separate themselves from a Steelers' team that came in 0-1 in the division.
But the yellow seats ("Did they have a sale on seats?" asked one Bengal during pre-game) symbolized the emotion Cincinnati would have to weather from the Steelers in the stadium's first regular-season game.
A tale of the tape: Heinz Field has 64,440 seats, 129 suites, 7,500 club seats, two club lounges with a total of 45,000 square feet all spread out over an enclosed area of 524,908 square feet.
Heinz is a smaller version of the Bengals' 65,350-seat Paul Brown Stadium, which has an enclosed area of 1.8 million square feet. PBS' club lounges are each about 30,000 square feet.
"This is the fourth stadium I've been to now in Pittsburgh and each one has its charms," said Bengals President Mike Brown as he surveyed the field during pregame. "Forbes Field, Pitt Stadium, Three Rivers and this is a beautiful place with a great view of the river and the city. The seats certainly make it memorable."
The Bengals came into the game relatively healthy. Backup free safety Darryl Williams, who missed last week's game with a sprained foot, dressed Sunday but the club was going to try not to use him.
Pittsburgh sack leader Jason Gildon turned his ankle in Friday's practice, but was expected to star.