GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Steelers turned back into Clark Kent yesterday. Went into the phone booth, stripped off their Superman capes and emerged in suits and black-rimmed glasses.
The team that swept through its first three opponents like the Mississippi flowing south, ran smack into an unexpected dam in Arizona. The Cardinals with coach Ken Whisenhunt handed the Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin their first loss, 21-14.
The Steelers showed little of the command they displayed in ringing up victories against their first three opponents by a combined 97-26 score.
"The quality of our play wasn't up to snuff today," Tomlin said.
Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes to Santonio Holmes, but he also threw two interceptions, one in the end zone from the Arizona 2. His teammates committed 11 penalties, one of which gave rookie Steve Breaston, who played at Woodland Hills High School, a second chance to return a fourth-quarter punt 73 yards and the touchdown that put the Cardinals ahead for good.
"That punt return was a dagger in us," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
It did not help that Willie Parker, who led the NFL in rushing after three games, managed only 37 yards on 19 carries as the Steelers' offense bogged down for long periods between Holmes' touchdown receptions in the first and fourth quarters.
The Steelers dropped from the NFL's unbeaten ranks at 3-1.
"Ain't too many teams going undefeated in this league," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said.
The loss may not bother them as much as how it happened, a virtual replay of last season when they bumbled their way to a 2-6 first half. There were numerous other special teams mistakes, three fumbles (none lost), four sacks of Roethlisberger and missed opportunities galore.
To top it off, the Steelers hobbled home with more injured players, among them safety Troy Polamalu (abdomen) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (hamstring) that knocked them from the game in the second half.
"This loss is on me," said Roethlisberger, who acknowledged being emotional all week leading up to a game against Whisenhunt, his former offensive coordinator.
"I can't throw a pick in the end zone. The defense gives us an opportunity and you throw it away. It's disappointing, it's frustrating when you feel like you let guys down."
That interception -- he threw just one in his first four games -- came late in the third quarter of a 7-7 game.
The Steelers struck first when, on third-and-26, Holmes sped past cornerback Eric Green to catch Roethlisberger's perfectly thrown pass over his shoulder in the left corner of the end zone for a 43-yard reception and a score.
"I went back to the sideline after our first series," said Holmes, who had six catches for 128 yards, "and told coach they were peeking in the backfield too much, so if we're going to take a shot, let's go ahead and take it early."
The Cardinals (2-2) tied a sloppy game on both sides when Jerheme Urban caught a 6-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter from backup quarterback Kurt Warner, who entered the contest for an ineffective Matt Leinart late in the first half.
But later in the third quarter, Warner dropped a snap out of the shotgun from his 24. As he went to retrieve it, Keisel smacked into him and linebacker James Harrison eventually recovered the ball at the Cardinals' 4.
Parker ran twice up the middle for a total of 2 yards. On third down from the 2, Roethlisberger dropped back and quickly fired for tight end Heath Miller in the front of the end zone.
Safety Adrian Wilson stepped in front of Miller to intercept the pass and preserve the tie.
Roethlisberger said he never saw Wilson.
"I saw Heath run a great route, I thought he was wide open. When I let go of it I still didn't see [Wilson]. I didn't see him until he caught it. He made a great play."
The dagger, as Keisel put it, happened early in the fourth quarter.
Rookie Daniel Sepulveda punted from his 19 to Breaston, who was tackled on the Arizona 25. However, Carey Davis, blocking on the Steelers' right wing, released too soon and was downfield before Sepulveda punted.
That 5-yard penalty moved the ball back to the 14, where Sepulveda punted again. This time, Breaston ran it back all the way, the first Cardinals' punt return for a touchdown in 14 seasons.
Tomlin said his gunners, his two outside coverage men, were probably tired on the second kick.
"I think when we get a re-kick, we should kick it out of bounds the next time," Keisel said.
The damage was done, and it got worse 10 minutes later when Edgerrin James, who had 77 yards rushing on 21 carries, scored from the 2, giving the Cardinals a 21-7 lead with 4:14 to go.
Holmes caught his second touchdown pass, from 7 yards with 1:49 left after a 92-yard drive.
The Steelers reached their 40 on their last-gasp attempt, but it ended there. The passion play of former coaches vs. former team and all the stories that went with it was over.
So, too, was the Steelers' early, dominant run through the NFL, or at least through three teams that did not make the playoffs last season.
"It's obviously a special win for me to beat the Steelers," Whisenhunt said, "but I don't have animosity toward that football team."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published October 1, 2007 4:00 AM