GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It was first and goal on the Arizona 4 late in the third quarter of a tie game. The way the Steelers had been playing this season that meant only one thing: Touchdown.
Except this time it did not. This time it meant failure. It meant interception. It meant defeat.
And so it was that in their fourth game, the team that could do no wrong in the first three could do no right and the Steelers lost to the Cardinals, 21-14, yesterday at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
Ben Roethlisberger's interception in the end zone, which ended the aforementioned scoring opportunity, will be remembered most for this defeat, and the quarterback did not dodge the criticism. "This one's on me," he said.
Not so fast, Ben. There was plenty of blame to spread around.
The Steelers could not run the ball, they failed to take advantage of both of Arizona's crucial turnovers and for the first time this season their special teams were outplayed.
Even on the coaching side, the edge went to the Cardinals and former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who interviewed for the job Mike Tomlin got and had to settle for Arizona's head coaching job.
The Steelers' inability to run the ball was perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the defeat. They had owned the line of scrimmage in the first three games, running for 206 yards against Cleveland, 184 against Buffalo and 205 against San Francisco. They managed only 77 against the Cardinals as Willie Parker, who had run for more than 100 yards in the first three games, was limited 37 yards on 19 carries.
It was the stiffest test of the season for Parker and his offensive line and they clearly were not up to the challenge. Their three previous opponents had been ranked between 26th and 30th in the NFL against the run, making them the softest of touches. The Cardinals, who had been allowing 102 rushing yards per game, were not among the elite, ranked 14th, but clearly were more than the Steelers could handle.
The Cardinals' special team victory was forged by a 73-yard punt return by Steve Breaston, who as a quarterback at Woodland Hills High was one of the most electrifying players in the history of the WPIAL. It took a special teams' mistake to give Breaston his chance.
On the previous play, a punt Breaston returned 3 yards, Carey Davis broke across the line of scrimmage before the ball was kicked and the resulting penalty forced the Steelers to kick again. This time Breaston broke to his right, ran through a couple of arm tackles and had a clear path to the end zone.
Late in the game, after the Steelers had scored to cut the margin to seven points and held the Cardinals on downs, Arizona's Mike Barr, who went to training camp three times with the Steelers, pooched a punt out of bounds on the 9 with 46 seconds remaining, effectively ruining any chance the Steelers had of tying the score.
The Steelers, who had been so effective in capitalizing on opponent mistakes, could not do that against Arizona.
In the second quarter, after the Steelers recovered a fumble by Larry Fitzgerald near midfield, the formerly formidable offense stalled. Parker got 5 yards on two carries and Roethlisberger was sacked for a 9-yard loss.
But who would have expected the Steelers, almost flawless for three games, to botch a drive that began on the opponent's 4?
After James Harrison recovered a fumble, Parker ran for 2 and then was stopped for no gain. A pass was called -- and expected. Strong safety Adrian Wilson stepped in front of tight end Heath Miller and intercepted Roethlisberger's throw.
"You can characterize interceptions however you want," said Tomlin when it was suggested Roethlisberger forced the ball. "To say anything other than Adrian Wilson made a nice play, you discredit his performance."
Roethlisberger said, "When I let it go, I thought it was a touchdown. I honestly didn't see him [Wilson]. I didn't see him until he caught it so he made a great play."
As for Whisenhunt, he appeared daft, when, with a seven-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, he elected to go for it on fourth-and-1, rather than attempting a 42-yard field goal. The play worked and the Cardinals went from there to score and take an insurmountable 21-7 lead.
Whisenhunt used his Steelers experience to gain an edge.
"I think coach Whiz knew some of the weak points of our offense," wide receiver Santonio Holmes said. "He was sending those guys left and right and putting pressure on us."
Defensive end Brett Keisel also acknowledged Whisenhunt's role. "I think some of the blitzes they maybe saw where we were coming from and did the hot route to the other side."
Not much worked for the Steelers. But after three exceptional performances, they had this one coming.
Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com . First Published October 1, 2007 4:00 AM