Still knocking on door

11-24-02, 4:10 p.m.

Updated: 11-25-02, 12:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PITTSBURGH _ Again, close but no cigar.

Not even a light.

The Bengals wiped out a 17-point deficit Sunday here at Heinz Field to make it as close a Florida presidential election. But they couldn't score a touchdown on four tries from the Steeler 5 in the last minute when one Chad (Steelers cornerback Scott) was hanging all over another Chad (Bengals wide receiver Johnson) to break up quarterback Jon Kitna's pass on fourth down in a 29-21 Pittsburgh victory.

Sound familiar?

It was just last week against Cleveland that Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon couldn't score on four shots from the Browns' seven-yard line in a bid to tie a 27-20 game with six minutes left.

It was a month ago the Bengals couldn't punch in Dillon from the 1 on fourth down to take the lead with 1:08 left in a 30-24 loss to the Titans.

"I don't feel jinxed," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau. "I think someone is probably getting a little bit of our luck. . .but we didn't make a play and they did."

How close is close?

"Does it matter?" asked middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "All it means is it's loss No. 10 and it just doesn't matter how close or how far."

It was the best of times and the worst of times for LeBeau Sunday in his old Super Bowl stomping grounds.

For the sixth time this season, the Bengals fell behind by at least 17 points in the first half. But for the first time they erased the 17-0 hole and for just the second time this season they claimed a fourth-quarter lead when rookie tight end Matt Schobel caught a 20-yard touchdown pass to put Cincinnati up, 21-20, with 8:35 left in the game. Not an easy achievement for a coach faced with a fragile locker room playing out another losing season.

But when the one play went against the Bengals again (for the second straight week, Bengals punt returner T.J. Houshmandzadeh fumbled the ball away in the game's waning moments), in one of LeBeau's one-play games, it is becoming clear to even his most die-hard supporters that he may very well pay for this 1-10 season with his job and not get an extension from club president Mike Brown.

"I truly hate not only what we're going through, but what Dick is going through," said linebacker Takeo Spikes, one of the defensive captains. "I don't think it's his fault, but you always got to look to the head man when ever there is something wrong with the team."

What is wrong with this team is it did things to squander another

seamless, no-turnover game for Kitna in which he produced a season-high 298 yards and a career day from Johnson. They do things like commit nine penalties for 110 yards, make the game's only turnover at the worst time, and pass up points in favor of field position.

Johnson took only a half to become the first Bengals receiver since Carl Pickens in 1994 to record three straight 100-yard days, and finished with 152 yards on seven catches.

But Kitna and Johnson couldn't hook up on their last shot to force a tie when from the Pittsburgh 5 when Scott reached in front of Johnson to tip away the fourth-down pass at the last instant with 42 seconds left after it appeared that Johnson had caught the ball.

Johnson thought Scott gambled on the play, but he tipped his hat to him for guessing right because if Kitna had lofted it over his shoulder instead of trying to jam it into his chest, it was six.

"50-50," Johnson said. "I had position, Scott just made a good play. What he did was real smart. Instead of looking at me, instead of looking at me as most corners do one-on-one, he just looked at the quarterback. So he saw the ball before I even saw the ball. That's why he was able to make such a quick read on it. It was smart by him to play it like that."

Kitna said he first looked left, but his receivers were jammed up, so he looked right in an effort to get Johnson the ball one last time.

Kitna's pass protection was superb all day and he had to throw four straight times from the 5 because they didn't get there until 59 seconds left. The Steelers sacked Kitna just once, but they brought enough heat on third down when they overloaded the pass rush on one side with three blitzers and he couldn't make connections with his "hot receiver."

On second down, Kitna threw it away with wide receiver Peter Warrick covered in the corner of the end zone. Kitna thought he had a touchdown on first down when they left wide receiver Ron Dugans open, but safety Brent Alexander came out of nowhere to bat it away.

Noticeably absent on the last four plays was Michael Westbrook, the Bengals' biggest and most physical receiver who has been known to outjump cornerbacks. But Westbrook doesn't play when the Bengals go "flush," their multi-receiver, spread set they used to stretch out the Steelers on the goal line.

The other big question of the day was LeBeau's decision to pass on a possible tying 46-yard field goal on the first series of the second half and have Neil Rackers punt to the Pittsburgh 14 even though Rackers has made six straight and 17 of his last 21 field-goal tries.

LeBeau said before the game the Bengals decided they had to get at least to the 25-yard-line to try a high-percentage field goal because of the field conditions and LeBeau said it was still early enough in the game to play field position.

But the Steelers didn't hesitate sending rookie Jeff Reed into the quagmire in his first NFL game. He hit three of four field goals, the last two coming from 43 and 45 yards.

But the big play, of course, came when Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans popped the ball loose from Houshmandzadeh at the Pittsburgh 28 with 6:20 left in the game. The defense allowed just one yard, but Reed made his NFL debut memorable when he nailed a 45-yard field goal with 4:44 left to give the Steelers a 23-21 lead.

The Steelers struck again less than three minutes later. Quarterback Kordell Stewart, who hit 22 of 26 passes for 236 yards for the best percentage day ever by a Steeler quarterback, found wide receiver Hines Ward for 37 yards as Ward finished off a 125-yard day.

The Bengals had done a good job hemming in Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, but he broke loose for a 24-yard touchdown run with 2:45 left in the game as he finished with 79 yards on 22 carries. When Reed missed the extra point to keep it 29-21, the Bengals had a chance to tie with a touchdown and two-point conversion.

Houshmandzadeh recovered long enough to rip off a 44 yard kick return and when Reed grabbed his face mask the Bengals got the ball on the Steeler 31.

The penalties were bound to catch up to the Bengals and they did in the third quarter when strong safety JoJuan Armour, starting because of his prowess against the run, got snagged in a pass-coverage snafu. With wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El taking a shotgun snap, Armour lost wide receiver Plaxico Burress down the middle of the field. Randle-El launched it high, Armour never found the ball, and he just smacked into Burress for a 44-yard penalty that put the ball on the Bengals 13.

"We were prepared for it. We checked it and knew Randle-El would throw it," Armour said. "I had two guys coming fast at me and I got to Plaxico too late."

Yet the Bengals' defense that had been so shredded in the first 20 minutes, played superbly the rest of the way. Their stand from the 13 led to Reed's 43-yard field goal that gave Pittsburgh a 20-14 lead with 6:02 left in the third quarter.

The Bengals finally scored from in close and closed a first-half shootout to 17-14 with the Steelers holding on.

Dillon, stopped twice on the doorstep in Paul Brown Stadium last week, scored from two yards out with 1:04 left in the half when he carried linebacker Mike Jones and Alexander into the end zone on second and third effort on third-and-one. Dillon finished with 60 yards on 19 carries, the first time since the Steelers' victory in Cincinnati Oct. 13 that Dillon hasn't had at least 92 yards in a game.

Kitna, who lit up the Steelers for 411 passing yards last year, was halfway there when he hit 12 of 17 passes for 212 yards as the Bengals scrambled back from the 17-0 deficit.

Kitna hurt Pittsburgh just like Tennessee did the week before when he converted five of seven third downs, with first downs coming on passes of 20, 15, 36 and 55 yards.

Johnson took advantage of the shoddy field conditions as he ran away from the falling Steeler secondary for a 55-yard play on third-and-10, and then he set up Dillon's run when he made a leaping 19-yard catch at the Steeler 2 to finish the half with 110 yards on four catches.

Dillon, who had 32 yards on 10 carries in the half, also scored with 7:39 left in the second quarter when he followed fullback Lorenzo Neal and right tackle Willie Anderson for a 10-yard touchdown around the outside that cut the lead to 17-7.

It took the Steelers a mere dozen minutes and 103 yards from Ward to gain the upper hand in this one when they went up 17-0 on their first three drives to jolt Cincinnati out of any kind of game plan.

Ward's 39-yard run off a reverse set up Bettis' one-yard touchdown run and Ward's 64-yard touchdown catch against gambling cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn made it 14-0 before Burress abused Kaesviharn for a pass-interference penalty and a 15-yard gain in front of him that led to Reed's first NFL field goal from 33 yards.

Kaesviharn tried to make a leaping play on the ball at the sideline, but he missed and then let Ward get out of his tackle.

Kaesviharn played because Jeff Burris saw little time in the first half as he tries to recover from his migraine headaches, but Burris did play often in the second. The Bengals were also without defensive end Vaughn Booker (rib cage), but they did a good job keeping Bettis quiet in the first half, holding him to 13 yards on 10 carries.

But Stewart proved to be more of a problem during the first half in his pinch-hitting role for Tommy Maddox. He not only led the Steelers in rushing with 41 yards on six carries, but he also hit his first seven passes for 127 yards and finished the half 11 of 13 for 155 yards with no interceptions and no sacks.

The Bengals beefed up for Bettis when they replaced rookie Marquand Manuel with Armour at strong safety in the starting lineup.

Cincinnati suffered a damaging blow on the opening kickoff of the second half when Brandon Bennett limped off the field after his 52-yard return put the Bengals at the Steelers 40. But the hyperextended knee ended his day, which was his third straight big one with 129 yards on four chances.

The Bengals didn't get any points out of the return when they lost six yards on a botched handoff between Kitna and Dillon and Rackers pooched instead of kicking his 46-yard field goal.

Trainer Paul Sparling said Bennett is to get a MRI, but he's optimistic there isn't a tear and that he could play next week.

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