Updated: 5:30 p.m.
Boos and black greeted the Bengals at halftime as they left the Paul Brown Stadium field not only trailing the Steelers on the scoreboard but in karma as they fell three games behind Pittsburgh in a 24-13 loss.
Sunday's Bengals' record crowd of 66,188 booed Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' decision to eschew a fourth-and-one try from the Steelers 2 with 2:21 left in the half and kick the field goal. The Steelers the blew up the call with nine seconds left in the half when they opted to gamble and go for a touchdown or nothing from the 1 on first down to take a 21-6 lead.
With his team at 2-5, losers of eight of their last 10 games, and behind the 5-2 Steelers, Lewis is feeling a blast furnace of heat. And, a twinge of regret that he didn't go for it, and admitted besides being outplayed and outexecuted, "Hell, I'm outcoached. I have to do a better job of getting us ready."
"In hindsight, we should have gone for it rather than take the points," Lewis said. "I didn't anticipate them driving down the field and getting a touchdown before halftime. Since we got the ball in the second half, I thought it was important to put up points that point in the football game. Looking back on it, if we had scored a touchdown, it might have been more significant. But this is the decision I made based on that."
The Bengals were looking to go for it, but after a timeout, Lewis got a good look at the measurement and changed his mind because, "It was a good yard."
But it was not a good game for Lewis and his staff. The Bengals had 10 men on the field when Pittsburgh scored its first touchdown, a 21-yard pass to Hines Ward.
"It was a defensive lineman. He had nothing to do with the play, fortunately," Lewis said. "They changed personnel three times. We changed personnel."
Even though the sideline was adamantly opposed to taking the field goal at the end of the half, the players wouldn't bite on the question if the decision showed a lack of confidence in the players.
"(Coach Lewis) will have his little weekly press conference (Monday) and you can ask him," Houshmandzadeh said. "Lack of confidence? It could possibly be that because on fourth-and-one, why wouldn't you go for it?"
Left tackle Levi Jones defended the call..
"You have to remember what's been going on and what is going on in the man's head. We haven't been converting on third down," Jones said. "Us as an offense on third down, we have to give that man confidence to know and to understand that we're going to go in there and do it. We haven't been doing that. That's not that man's fault for making that call."
The Bengals are out of answers and with nine games left, time.
"Disappointed, frustrated," is how quarterback Carson Palmer described his teammates. "I never would have guessed it, never would have thought it, never in the back of my mind did I think we'd be sitting where we are now."
The Bengals would cut the lead to 21-13 early in the fourth quarter, but they couldn't overcome the creative and brute strength of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger, finishing 19-for-26 for 230 yards, answered Houshmandzadeh's nine-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter with another of his vintage third-down sacks that he turns into a first down when he shrugged off linebacker Landon Johnson and found wide receiver Santonio Holmes for another first down with a 12-yard completion on third-and-six from the Pittsburgh 47.
So instead of forcing a punt, the play helped the Steelers click 6:53 off the clock and Jeff Reed hit a 40-yard field goal that made it 24-13 with just 6:09 left.
Palmer then hooked up with Houshmandzadeh on a 28-yard catch, but more calamity in the red zone shot them down.
Bengals running back Kenny Watson had 88 yards on 19 carries, but on his last attempt linebacker James Harrison came from behind to rip the ball from him to force a fumble that he also recovered to end it all with 3:16 left at the Steelers 12.
Watson left for good on that play with an accidental blow to the head from Levi Jones' knee, but Watson said he'll be back next week against Buffalo. Later, defensive tackle John Thornton left for good with a stinger but Lewis said he'll be fine.
"I lost us the game. I don't know where he came from, but you can't do that," Watson said.
Just as the Steelers hovered for the kill midway through the third quarter when they kept the ball for more than seven minutes and ventured to the Bengals 11, Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal came up with his first interception of the season.
That spawned a monstrous 17-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that ended with Houshmandzadeh's nine-yard touchdown (and ninth of the season) with 13:02 left in the game that made it 21-13. One snap after committing a false start, wide receiver Chad Johnson made a sliding catch on fourth-and-seven working against cornerback Ike Taylor for 14 yards put the ball at the Steelers 14.
Watson got some running room and finished the drive with 72 yards on 15 carries, but they didn't have the ball enough to pound any continuity. Palmer finished 23 of 31 for 205 yards, but Roethlisberger converted eight of 11 third downs as the Steelers ran eight more plays and had the ball five more minutes.
The Steelers took a 21-6 lead with four seconds left in the half when left guard Alan Faneca tied up strong safety Dexter Jackson and the rest of the Steelers' line opened up the Bengals' right perimeter as running back Willie Parker walked in for a touchdown. When he flexed his muscles to the end-zone crowd, the dominance of the Steelers was complete.
Parker, who finished the day with 126, ripped off 79 yards in the half, 32 in that last drive on a wrap-around-handoff that blew a large hole on the Bengals' right side as free safety Madieu Williams tried a blitz from the other side.
But it was Roethlisberger's poise on third down and the Bengals' lack of fortitude on fourth down that decided this one.
With absolutely no pressure applied, Roethlisberger picked up where he left off from last season and tortured the Bengals secondary. Roethlisberger, who hit 10 of his first 12 passes for 136 yards, struck with two big throws to pull the Steelers out of a 3-0 deficit.
Then when the Bengals couldn't cash a third-and-one behind Watson, Roethlisberger turned around and converted three first downs on a 12-play drive that ended on his six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Hines Ward on third-and-goal in front of Madieu Williams and just over the stretch of safety Chinedum Ndukwe.
That made it 14-3 with 7:42 left in the second quarter after a drive that consumed more than seven minutes and Roethlisberger was on his way with 13 of 18 for 167 yards in the half.
On the first third-and-four of that second touchdown drive, Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller for a 23-yard gain down the middle as he jockeyed with Jackson and Williams. On the next third-and-four, from the Bengals 45, a blitz by linebacker Robert Geathers flushed Roethlisberger from the pocket, and with Thornton hanging on his leg, Roethlisberger fell down flinging a seven-yard pass over the middle to Holmes for the first down.
Trailing 3-0, Roethlisberger picked on rookie cornerback Leon Hall twice in a five-play drive. Both times Hall bit on Roethlisberger's pump fake and the first resulted in Holmes' 42-yard catch behind Hall. Although Holmes never had possession and Hall argued immediately that the ball hit the ground, the Bengals' challenge was rejected.
Then after a Pittsburgh false start, Roethlsiberger did the same thing as the defense scrambled to get set up and never got the 11th guy on the field. Ward's double move against Hall left him wide open for a 21-yard touchdown catch with about three minutes left in the first quarter.
The Bengals simply couldn't cash in the red zone. Palmer, who finished the half 14 of 16 for 114 yards, drove them to the 2 with a mix of passes (Chad Johnson had five catches for 51 yards for the game) and runs, but on third-and-6 from the 7, Palmer could only get five yards out of a throw to tight end Reggie Kelly.
Chad Johnson's struggles against Pittsburgh continued. He hasn't had a 100-yard day against them since 2003, a touchdown against them since 2004, and he dropped two balls and had a false start Sunday. One drop could have been a 50-yard bomb in the third quarter, but it bounced off his face mask as he beat Anthony Smith, jumping and then falling at the Steelers 15.
The key play might have very well been that 3rd-and-one in which Watson got stuffed. With right tackle Willie Anderson injured, backup Nick Eason, playing for injured end Aaron Smith, worked the line for penetration and forced a punt.
The Bengals squeezed a 3-0 lead out of their first drive, holding the ball for nearly seven minutes and 69 yards against the Steelers' top-ranked defense before Shayne Graham kicked a 31-yard field 9:49 into the game.
Backup running back DeDe Dorsey followed blocks by Kelly and rookie tight end Dan Coats for a 17-yard gain on a screen and Chad Johnson made a tip-toe catch on the sideline for an 11-ard gain against cornerback Ike Taylor as the Bengals drove to a first down on the Steeler 13.
But Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton blew up running back Kenny Watson for a six-yard loss in the backfield and on third down Houshmandzadeh (seven balls for 81 yards) screamed for an interference penalty after free safety Anthony Smith took him down in the back of the end zone.
Graham hit the field goal for the 3-0 lead.
Palmer hit six of his seven passes in the opening drive, but the failure to convert in the red zone haunted them the rest of the day.
The Bengals defense held on its first third down, a third-and-5 from the Steeler 45. Geathers blitzed and Roethlisberger hurried a pass behind Ward.
Roethlisberger did get a break with 32 seconds left in the half and the Steelers on the Bengals 10. Defensive end Justin Smith had Roethlisberger hemmed in and when he tried to get away from tackle Domata Peko, he whipped a pass blindly way past the end zone and nearly into the stands. But the refs ruled it wasn't intentional grounding.
PRE-GAME NOTES: Running back Kenny Watson and middle linebacker Anthony Schlegel got their fourth straight starts Sunday as the backup Bengals try to string together an upset over AFC North-leading Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium.
Starters Rudi Johnson and Ahmad Brooks were inactive again, as was backup milled linebacker Caleb Miler. Stacy Andrews also got his second start at right tackle with Pro Bowler Willie Anderson inactive for the second time in three games.
Also inactive were wide receiver Marcus Maxwell, cornerback David Jones and defensive end Frostee Rucker.
As expected, Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith ended his 117-game streak with a knee injury and free safety Ryan Clark (abdomen) was also inactive. Nick Eason got his fourth NFL start and first for the Steelers in place of Smith and Anthony Smith made his sixth pro start and second this season for Clark.
The losses of Anderson and Smith look to be a wash. The Bengals are without their four-time Pro Bowler and the Steelers are missing a defensive end they think should have made more than one Pro Bowl.
"He's the guy who does all their dirty work in the running game," said an NFL insider earlier this week.
As usual, no mysteries when these two teams meet. It usually means Armageddon for one of the other and usually it's the Bengals. With a loss, the 2-4 Bengals would fall three games behind the 4-2 Steelers with just nine to play.
In Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's 4-0 streak at PBS, he's only thrown more than 21 passes once. His passing isn't what worries the Bengals. What does is Roethlisberger's ability to break tackles and turn sacks into big plays to secondary receivers left wide open after the play breaks down.
That's why head coach Marvin Lewis referred to him as "a big Doug Flutie," earlier this week and why the coaches have stressed treating him like a running back when they tackle him.
The Bengals emerged wearing their all black uniforms on a sunny crisp morning that was supposed to warm up to 56 degree at kickoff. Their record in the black ensemble is 5-3 and made its first appearance of the season. The two wins have come in black shirts and white pants.
Lewis opted to announce his starting defense en masse. The game captains were left guard Andrew Whitworth for the offense, strong safety Dexter Jackson for the defense and linebacker Dhani Jones for special teams.
The coin toss didn't go well. The Bengals, needing not to fall behind the Steelers running game, had to kick off to the Steelers.
Looking ahead to next week's game in Buffalo, running back Chris Perry didn't sound like he was going to be ready even though Lewis said he would start practicing.
Asked if he though he'd be the Perry of 2005 his only healthy season), he said last week, "At some point. Not right away. Those are things (speed, elusiveness) that are always going to be there. But not overnight. It's a long process. What we want to do know is don't hurry back and rush it."
Perry is scheduled to practice Oct. 31, which will be 26 days shy of the year anniversary he left the game in Cleveland with a dislocated ankle.