PITTSBURGH – While showing the Bengals just exactly how a team overcomes their mistakes and adversity, the Steelers blew open a tight game with 12:21 left when they returned Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer's second pick-six of the day and fifth of the season for a 20-7 lead Sunday at Heinz Field.
When Shaun Suisham's 41-yard field goal with 5:34 left accounted for the 23-7 final, the Bengals fell to 2-11 and tied their 17-year-old club-record with their 10th straight loss as Palmer became the first quarterback with five pick-sixes in a season since A.J. Feeley in 2004.
Down 13-7 the Bengals had a first-and-10 from their 14 when left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley lined up near the line of scrimmage and dropped into a zone toward wide receiver Chad Ochocinco on the sideline. Woodley stretched out, caught it and went up the sideline, duplicating safety Troy Polamalu's 45-yard pick and score late in the first half.
It is the only way the Steelers scored touchdowns to get the lead, but Pittsburgh pummeled the Bengals in the third quarter when they kept the ball for 13:15. The only time the Bengals got the ball, they couldn't overcome a holding call on wide receiver Terrell Owens or Chad Ochocinco's inability to get his second foot down in-bounds on what looked to be close to a first down on second-and-15.
Leading 13-7, the Steelers then overcame three holding penalties to keep the ball for 15 plays in a drive that lasted 9:22. Working against a decimated Bengals secondary without starting cornerback Johnthan Joseph and safety Chinedum Ndukwe, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger picked on nickel cornerback Tom Nelson when he hit wide receiver Hines Ward (eight catches, 115 yards) on a leaping catch in man-to-man coverage for a 29-yard play as the Steelers converted a first-and-30. Joseph (ankle) never dressed and Ndukwe suffered a serious knee injury in the second quarter.
Playing behind a banged up offensive line, Roethlisberger resorted to screens and quick throws and took advantage of missed tackles and a wide open secondary in dishing 21-of-34 for 258 yards.
The Bengals offense had no answers. Palmer suffered his third interception of the day (his third three-pick game of the year) when Polamalu got him at the goal line late. For the second time in his career, two of those Palmer interceptions were returned for TDs for the first time since Arizona in 2007. Owens had just one catch for 22 yards. Palmer finished with just 178 yards on 20-of-32 passing for a 48.7 rating, his second worst of the season behind the 41 against the Jets.
The Bengals rock-solid defensive effort in the first half was spoiled by Polamalu's 45-yard interception return for a touchdown with 4:37 left in the half that tied the game at seven and Roethlisberger's nano-quick two-minute drive for 75 yards that yielded Suisham's 23-yard field goal with 21 seconds left to give the Steelers a 10-7 halftime lead.
Neither bucked the trend this season. It was Palmer's fourth interception returned for a touchdown this season and the seventh time in the last eight games the Bengals allowed points in the final 1:17 of the half.
Palmer's pick came on second-and-eight from the Bengals 33 as he eyed Owens running a post. Polamalu jumped in front of Owens, crossed the middle of the field and the Pro Bowl safety raced down the left sideline. Palmer shoved him out of bounds but Polamalu stretched the ball back over the goal line for his second career touchdown return. He had gone six years between them, both off Palmer, his former USC housemate. The first one was also at Heinz back on Oct. 3, 2004, a 26-yarder late that locked up a 28-17 win.
The Steelers deferred the opening kickoff and the Bengals took advantage with an eight-play drive capped by left tackle Andrew Whitworth's first NFL touchdown catch off a play-action fake from Palmer on the one-yard line with 9:58 left in the first quarter. Whitworth stumbled off the line but Palmer threw it anyway before Whitworth turned around for the first touchdown catch by a Bengals offensive lineman since rookie tackle Melvin Tuten caught a three-year touchdown from quarterback Jeff Blake on Sept. 10, 1995 during a victory over Jacksonville.
Palmer hit his first four passes for 46 yards in the drive, including a 22-yarder to Owens down the middle behind a linebacker and in front of safety Ryan Clark, and cornerback Ike Taylor drew a 19-yard pass interference penalty when he got tied up with Ochocinco in the end zone. After that drive, however, the Bengals offense sputtered as they were able to produce only 121 total yards the rest of the way and it turned out to be Owens' only catch of the day.
The Bengals again faltered in the first half after scoring on the first drive. Palmer hit 11 of 15 passes for 100 yards in the half despite getting sacked twice with the Bengals having a difficult time blocking Woodley and left inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers No. 1 run defense was advertised with the Bengals managing just 30 yards on 12 carries (seven by Cedric Benson, four by Bernard Scott) and they couldn't get anything big out of the passing game. They couldn't run it any better in the second half and finished with season lows of 14 carries for 34 yards.
The Ocho didn't have to wait until the last 44 seconds to catch a ball like he did last month against Pittsburgh. He caught an eight-yarder on the first snap of the game, but couldn't get one longer than 15 and finished with six catches for 71 yards.
And, the Bengals were forced to take a timeout before the play clock ran down and two drives couldn't overcome penalties in the first half.
One was called on Scott when he covered up an eligible receiver in Whitworth at the end of the line, which wiped out Scott's own six-yard run for a first down. The Bengals also couldn't take advantage of a kickoff out-of-bounds and blow out the rest of the clock after right guard Bobbie Williams false-started late in the half.
That set up Roethlisberger's two-minute drive of 13 plays highlighted by Antwaan Randle El's leaping one-handed catch at the Bengals 18 for 22 yards. It was followed up with Roethlisberger's 13-yard run off a high, botched shot-gun snap in which he quickly busted it up the middle when the Bengals had their backs turned in man-to-man.
The Bengals then missed two great chances for interceptions that would have wiped away the field goal with their pass rush pummeling Roethlisberger. Dunlap's teammates couldn't track down his tip at the line and on third and five from the 5 WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson was all alone in the end zone on a flip to wide receiver Hines Ward and he dropped it.
The Bengals got a very active half from their young defensive linemen. Dunlap had at least two tips (had three for the game) and right end Michael Johnson had one of two first-half sacks.
The Bengals defense forced two punts to start the game, the last a three-and-out when middle linebacker Dhani Jones dropped Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall for no gain on second down and Dunlap batted away the third-down pass when he dropped on a zone blitz.
The Steelers took up some chunks on their first drive, including a miraculous nine-yard flip to Mendenhall as Roethlisberger avoided SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga and then Peko before being planted by Johnson. The Bengals did end up getting Roethlisberger for a sack to stop that drive and driving the Steelers out of field goal range when Ndukwe came up with the sack as tackle Geno Atkins backed his man into Roethlisberger.
PREGAME NOTES: Starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph was inactive for Sunday's game against the Steelers with his high ankle sprain and tight end Jermaine Gresham was active after meeting the team here following the death of his grandmother.
Joseph can't play a week after two backup cornerbacks, Rico Murray (ankle) and Brandon Ghee (hamstring), went on injured reserve. Jonathan Wade makes his second start 20 days after he joined the team as a free agent. It probably means that safety Tom Nelson goes into the slot, making the fourth cornerback Fred Bennett, another free agent that joined the club a day after Wade.
Joseph has struggled with the ankle since he injured it Oct. 10 against Tampa Bay. He missed two games, started the next three, and sat out the Thursday night game against the Jets before returning against the Saints last week.
Also out as they have been most of the year were running back Cedric Peerman, center Reggie Stephens, and wide receiver Jerome Simpson, as well as newcomers Kirk Chambers, a tackle, and defensive end Victor Adeyanju. Rookie linebacker Vincent Rey was also down in his first game on the active roster. Fullback Chris Pressley, also on the roster for the first time, was active.
Gresham has started eight games this season and has 47 catches, a Bengals rookie record. He missed the week of practice to be with his family.
It appeared that Joseph didn't run around on Heinz Field to try out the ankle. The tarp came off about 90 minutes before the game, which is when the inactives are announced. It didn't look like the rain would change to snow during a game temperatures weren't expeced to get below freezing. There was a steady rain during pregame and heavier rain was expected but it wasn't supposed to change to snow until about the time the game ends at 4 p.m.
Since the Bengals are on grass, they are wearing shoes with longer cleats that are screwed into the bottom instead of molded on the shoe.
The Bengals wore white jerseys and black pants, an ensemble that has a won-loss record of 11-16.
The devastated Bengals secondary took another blow with 9:14 left in the second quarter when safety Chinedum Ndukwe was helped off the field with what appeared to be a serious leg injury.