BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals fell to 2-10 on a bleak, dank Sunday their defense betrayed them and their offense couldn't catch up against a Pittsburgh team that hadn't scored more than 24 points this season.
The Steelers (6-6) turned two turnovers involving beleaguered Bengals quarterback Akili Smith into touchdowns in the final 1:31 of the third quarter and went on to a 48-28 rout here Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
After hitting his first five passes for 49 yards, Smith finished the game 10-for-20 with 129 yards and his first touchdown pass since Oct. 1. But he may not have won another chance to start next Sunday against Arizona.
Scott Mitchell's sprained left knee was upgraded from questionable to probable, yet Bengals coach Dick LeBeau left the quarterback situation questionable.
"That will depend on looking at Scott's knee a little bit," LeBeau said. "I thought Akili did a good job. I know Scott did a good job the week before, so the situation is better there. . .The passing attack was present again for the second straight week and that's encouraging. But we'll have to see how the week shakes down. I'm not ready to make a statement on that right now."
It was the most points scored against the Bengals since Pittsburgh secured a 49-31 victory down the road at Cinergy Field in 1995.
Smith had a solid first half and he did break his drought of 30 straight quarters without a touchdown pass when he hit wide receiver Peter Warrick from five yards out with 2:50 left in the game. **Many of his teammates thought Smith played well, but the nightmarish third quarter has the Bengals in another quarterback quandary.
With the Steelers leading, 31-21, outside linebacker Jason Gildon swooped in from the inside to force Smith's sixth sack and lost fumble of the season at the Cincinnati 7.
On the next play, Steelers running back Jeorme Bettis barged into the end zone in a game he finished with 93 yards on 23 carries.
Then on the last play of the quarter, Bengals center Rich Braham fired a snap over Smith's head in the shotgun formation. When Smith couldn't fall on it, Gildon went to the ground to scoop up the ball and raced 22 yards for another touchdown when no Bengal touched him while he was on the ground.
At that point, the Steelers turned out the lights and turned to backup quarterback Kent Graham and the Bengals sat down Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon for their final two drives after he had 128 yards on 23 carries.
Later in the game, Gildon stripped Smith of the ball again for the Bengals' eighth fumble of the day, but it was recovered by right tackle Willie Anderson.
Dillon opened the second half by going over the 100-yard mark with a seven-carry, 31-yard series he capped on a four-yard touchdown run to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 31-24, giving him 113 yards on 15 carries.
It's Dillon's 17th 100-yard career game, tying James Brooks for the club record.
But the Bengals' secondary couldn't match Dillon's day.
Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart, the second-lowest rated passer in the NFL, worked on the Bengals' secondary with the aid of a shaky pass rush and hit wide receiver Bobby Shaw for a 45-yard touchdown pass to give Pittsburgh a 31-21 lead with 6:16 left in the third quarter.
Stewart hit five of his first seven passes for 83 yards, and then ran for two key first downs as the first half ticked down to set up Kris Brown's 44-yard field goal with 16 seconds left for Pittsburgh's 24-14 half-time lead.
In just three quarters of work, Stewart passed for 182 yards on 11 of 20 passing. It's the first time he threw for three touchdowns since 1997.
Stewart and Smith came into the game rated as the league's two worst quarterbacks, but were better than advertised early.
Smith finished the first half 5-for-6 passing, but he couldn't get any more chances because Pittsburgh had the ball nearly twice as long as the Bengals (19:48-10:12) with Cincinnati failing to stop seven of Pittsburgh's nine third-down tries.
That's because Stewart finished the first half 10-for-17 for 137 yards, gold mine for an offense averaging just 150 passing yards per game.
The Bengals and Steelers weren't supposed to score, right?
Except both teams scored on their first two possessions for a 14-14 tie just 1:04 in the second quarter.
But seconds after the Bengals staged the first defensive stop of the day, their punt returner, Craig Yeast, fumbled the ball back to the Steelers at the Cincinnati 36.
That turned into tight end Mark Bruener's 11-yard touchdown catch to give Pittsburgh a 21-14 lead with nine minutes left in the second quarter.
Dillon tied the game at 14 with a 20-yard burst off the left side as he racked up 83 yards on his first nine carries to become the eighth player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards in his first four seasons.
The Bengals wasted no time putting the NFL's second-ranked running game into action when reserve running back Brandon Bennett broke off the right side for a 37-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7 less than five minutes into the game.
Bennett followed right guard Mike Goff's kick-out block on outside linebacker Jason Gildon and down-field blocks by tight end Tony McGee and Warrick.
Stewart hit receiver Hines Ward with a 34-yard touchown pass just 2:54 into the game as Ward sliced inside cornerback Rodney Heath into an uncovered middle of the end zone.
Ward was huge in the next drive, setting up in front of Heath for a 13-yard gain on third-and-five that set up Stewart's one-yard sneak for the touchdown.
Mitchell's left knee didn't respond during warmups, so the Bengals went with Smith.
At about 10:15 a.m., Mitchell and offensive coordinator Ken Anderson went on the field with trainer Paul Sparling. Five minutes later, they call came off the field after Mitchell tried dropping back and passing a handful of times.
"When I tried to go full speed, it just caught on me," Mitchell said. "I could feel it catching. I just couldn't do it."
But Mitchell could play in an emergency, so he dressed as the third quarterback behind Smith and Scott Covington. Smith, benched after the 23-6 loss in Dallas, got pulled in favor of Mitchell during the third quarter of last month's 15-0 loss to these Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The Bengals' Sunday morning deactivations were linebacker Marc Megna, defensive lineman Jevon Langford and safety/linebacker JoJuan Armour.