For every step they took Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals took two back in a frustrating Monday night they lost to the Steelers, 27-21, summing up their uphill climb in the AFC North at 2-6.
The Bengals had one last shot when they got the ball at their own 36 after Jeff Reed missed a 46-yard field goal with 3:59 left.
Running back Cedric Benson converted a great third down on third-and-14 when he made a catch-and-run for 16 yards even though two Steelers tipped it before he caught it. Then wide receiver Terrell Owens made another great catch when he caught a 20-yarder at the Steelers 17 and absorbed a huge hit by safety Troy Polamalu. With the Steelers blitzing like mad, running back Brian Leonard was called for a hold, but wide receiver Chad Ochocinco caught his first ball of the game with 44 seconds left at the 12 to make it third-and-five.
But Palmer's pass to Owens down the middle in the end zone was high and on fourth down rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley had the ball and first down dislodged from him at the 4 when James Harrison and Ike Taylor sandwiched him with 34 seconds left.
The Bengals couldn't protect Palmer earlier in the fourth quarter so he decided to throw a touchdown pass while getting hit. With blitzing linebacker James Farrior banging into him, Palmer hit Owens for a touchdown for the second time in the game on a 27-yard pass that cut Pittsburgh's lead to 27-14 with 13:12 left in the game. Owens caught his 151st career TD racing past cornerback Bryant McFadden on an immense night he finished with 141 yards on 10 catches.
That ignited the Bengals. Safety Roy Williams intercepted Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's underthrown pass to tight end Heath Miller and an unsportsmanlike penalty against Pittsburgh put the Bengals at the Steelers 36. It set the tone. Nose tackle Casey Hampton was called for roughing the passer and Palmer went long to Owens again. This time Taylor was called for pass interference and it set up Benson's one-yard touchdown run behind the lead block of defensive tackle Domata Peko to make it 27-21 with 9:05 left.
The only time the Bengals defense faltered in the second half was on a gadget play on the first play of the fourth quarter when wide receiver Antwan Randle-El took the ball from Roethlisberger and jacked it to wide receiver Mike Wallace for a 39-yard touchdown pass when Wallace got position on cornerback Leon Hall. That made it 27-7, but the Bengals offense suddenly came alive. Palmer had a gutty game. Despite getting pounded routinely, Palmer finished 22-of-36 yards for 248 yards and a passer rating of 88.7.
After the Bengals special teams staked the Steelers to much of their lead, the punchless offense couldn't take advantage of three straight three-and-outs by the defense to open the second half and saw their offensive line blow up late in the third quarter.
After Palmer hit Ochocinco for his first catch of the night with about three minutes left in the quarter, right tackle Andre Smith was called for holding outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley around the corner and The Ocho was called for a delay of game when he spiked the ball to the turf.
Smith, who had trouble at various points, was then benched in favor of Dennis Roland and that blew up immediately when Woodley set what amounted to a pick on Roland for the other outside backer, James Harrison, and he hauled down Palmer easily for Pittsburgh's third of four sacks in the game.
The Bengals defense came up big in the third, which featured their first sack (by defensive lineman Robert Geathers) in 10 quarters.
But the offense was close to imploding. After The Ocho was jawing with Palmer, he was on the bench early in the fourth quarter for a play when head coach Marvin Lewis wanted to cool him off.
For the third time in four games the Bengals gave up points in the last seconds of the half or the game when Reed drilled a 53-yarder with five seconds left in the half just 36 seconds after the Bengals' Mike Nugent pulled a 51-yarder left to cap the special teams misery.
That came after running back Bernard Scott set up the Bengals at the Steelers 43 on a 46-yard kick return with 1:59 left in the half. But with the Steelers deploying a defense with just two down linemen, the Bengals let the Steelers get some heat on Palmer from both edges. They generated nothing in the pass game and had to turn to Nugent with Palmer finishing the half 8-of-15 for 76 yards.
Roethlisberger then wasted no time hitting Wallace in the zone past cornerback Johnathan Joseph and in front of safety Chinedum Ndukwe for a 24-yard gain that set up Reed's field goal.
After the Bengals cut the lead to 10-7 midway through the second quarter, Palmer appeared to have the Bengals on the march again. He found Owens four times for 60 yards in the half and had him for a first down on this drive. But left tackle Andrew Whitworth was called for holding Harrison and on the ensuing third-and-13, Palmer tried to jam it to Owens over the middle but linebacker Lawrence Timmons was there for the interception at the Pittsburgh 48.
Roethlisberger (17-for-27 for 163 yards and 76.5 rating) then hit the speedster Wallace running past Hall for a 35-yard play on third-and-two. The killer came on third-and-eight when wide receiver Hines Ward knifed inside linebacker Brandon Johnson at the goal line for a touchdown catch that made it 17-7 with 2:07 left in the half.
That took a lot of gas out of the Bengals. Staring into a 10-0 hole, the Bengals got a huge turnover from Hall that turned into Palmer's 19-yard touchdown pass to Owens wide open down the middle on third-and-five to cut the Steelers lead to 10-7 with 8:46 left in the first half.
On a screen pass to Ward, Hall put his helmet on the ball to get it out and Roy Williams, playing his first game in a month after injuring his knee, recovered at the Pittsburgh 38. Palmer then hit Owens for a leaping 14-yard catch and as the Bengals worked out of the no-huddle, Benson made hay to get them into the red zone. Benson finished with 54 yards on 18 carries, the most gained against the Steelers this season.
It was a brutal start. Just exactly what couldn't happen did: A fumbled kickoff and blocked punt. The Chicago Fire had a better start as the Bengals fell behind 10-0 with just 7:14 gone in the game.
Scott coughed up the opening kickoff at the Bengals 25 and the Steelers took a 7-0 led just 2:03 into the game when running back Rashard Mendenhall bucked over from the 1.
Scott, who returned a kick for a touchdown the last time the two met, had the ball knocked loose by his fellow return man Emmanuel Sanders. Then on third-and-three Roethlisberger worked a fake reverse from Mendenhall to Randle-El and when rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap hesitated, Roethlisberger shot-putted a pass to the wide-open Mendenhall for a 17-yard gain.
After Mendenhall scored, the Bengals watched Benson hammer the NFL's top-ranked run defense for 20 yards on their first four snaps, the first three out of no-huddle. When they threw their first pass on third-and-one and McFadden knocked the ball away from Ochocinco over the middle, the Bengals had to punt.
Steelers cornerback William Gay came roaring up the middle to take the ball off Huber's foot at his own 30 and it turned into Reed's 25-yard field goal.
Palmer had a shaky start. He missed his first three passes and the last two could have been picked off. One was thrown behind Owens and another was thrown outside of Shipley in the slot.
On the Steelers' first possession on their side of the field, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer forced Roethlisberger to call a timeout on third-and-six in their own version of the no-huddle when he lined up five players outside the right tackle. The Bengals then forced the punt even though Roethlisberger got a pass off despite being in the embrace of right end Michael Johnson.
The one thing the Bengals could do Monday was run the ball. Benson had 41 yards on his first nine carries against a defense that hadn't allowed more than 48 yards by a back this season. But picking up where they left off last week, the Bengals missed their first three third-down tries and missed six of their first eight.
The Bengals had the Steelers backed up on their 1 when wide receiver Andre Caldwell downed Huber's punt, but Roethlisberger hit tight end Matt Spaeth working on middle linebacker Dhani Jones for 12 yards and Mendenhall got his second plus-20-yard run of the night when he bounced for 22 up the middle on the snap before Hall forced Ward's fumble.
The Steelers lost two offensive linemen on those plays to injury, left guard Chris Kemoeatu and center Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey came back in the second half.
PREGAME NOTES: With Tank Johnson down with a knee injury, Pat Sims got his first start of the season and ninth of his career at defensive tackle Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium against the Steelers.
Out for the sixth time in eight games, defensive lineman Jon Fanene (hamstring) was iced, as was special teamer Roddrick Muckelroy, a rookie linebacker with an ankle problem. Inactive as they have been most of the season were wide receiver Jerome Simpson, right tackle Anthony Collins, center Reggie Stephens, and running back Cedric Peerman.
In response to Johnson being down, the Bengals signed Clinton McDonald from the pracice squad earlier in the day and waived safety Rico Murray, probably with the hope of signing him to the practice squad. On the squad all of this year and last year, it is McDonald's first NFL game.
Head coach Marvin Lewis chose to announce the offense in its all-black uniforms, in which the Bengals have an 8-5-1 record. The Steelers won the toss and deferred and kicked the ball to the Bengals.
About three and a half hours before kickoff, the radio man wearing a ballcap came in through the media gate holding his cardboard depth charts and gave the lady his name so he could get his press-box pass.
"Boomer Esiason," he said. "I used to play here. Probably when you were a little girl."
Esiason, who quarterbacked the Bengals in 123 games in the '80s and '90s, has some decided opinions about the current quarterback when asked about Monday night's game.
"The wide receivers have to run the right routes. If they don't run the right routes, I as a quarterback don't know where they're going," Esiason said. "There's a lot egos. Somebody has to keep those egos straight. It's up to the quarterback."
Esiason has always liked the Terrell Owens pickup, but he says, "Something is wrong."
And there's little time.
"Tonight is their season," he said. "If they lose tonight, forget it. It's over."