The Steelers found themselves on better footing last night at Heinz Field. Not only did their new sod hold up in the rain much better than it did a week ago, their game turned better and their lead in the AFC North Division grew.
The Steelers spotted Cincinnati an early lead, then ran out to a 24-10 victory. At 9-3, they hold a two-game lead over Cleveland, which lost yesterday to Arizona.
Next up: The undefeated New England Patriots Sunday in Foxborough, Mass.
Cincinnati fell to 4-8 and virtually out of playoff contention as the Steelers became the first home team to win in the past eight meetings in this series.
Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes to Hines Ward and ran for another as the Steelers overcame four turnovers -- two on Willie Parker fumbles and two Roethlisberger interceptions.
"Guys were resilient, didn't blink and stayed the course," coach Mike Tomlin explained.
Did the steady rain have an effect on ball control?
"We don't make excuses," Tomlin said. "The bottom line, we have to do a better job of hanging onto the ball."
The Bengals made it look easy only on their first series of the game, when they drove 75 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead when Rudi Johnson crashed over left guard from the 1.
Quarterback Carson Palmer looked good early when he completed seven of his first eight passes. But for someone known among the most accurate passes in the league, Carson turned sour and finished with 17 completions in 44 attempts.
That, and more good play by a Steelers defense that virtually won the 3-0 bog bowl game a week ago against Miami, held the Bengals to a field goal the rest of the way despite all the turnovers.
"We woke up, I think," Keisel said after that first Bengals drive. "Everyone was a little flat from the get-go. I'm proud of the way we responded.
"There were adverse situations where we got turnovers and we held them to a field goal."
Roethlisberger was more accurate than Palmer. He completed 21 of 32 passes for 184 yards -- and for the first time this season he was not sacked. He did throw those two interceptions, although the Bengals did not capitalize on either.
Ward caught 11 of his passes for 90 yards, a couple of times getting crushed while he did so. His two touchdowns raised his career total to 64, passing John Stallworth for the team record.
"He's a tough guy," Tomlin said. "He's a football player first, a wide receiver second."
The Bengals blew a chance to take a 10-0 lead when Shayne Graham missed a 43-yard field goal into the wind in the second quarter.
That's when the Steelers' offense finally came alive.
They drove 67 yards for a touchdown, using the no-huddle most of the way. Roethlisberger scrambled to his left from the 6 and kept running. He leapt over cornerback Leon Hall at the 3 and dived into the end zone. There, linebacker Landon Johnson delivered a crushing blow to the quarterback's ribs, but he stretched the ball and touched the goal line with it for the score.
"Ben is a tremendous competitor," Tomlin said. "He gets that wild look in his eyes. ... His teammates love that about him."
Something rare happened on the following kickoff when the Steelers' coverage team forced a fumble. Glenn Holt fielded the kick and fumbled when Grant Mason hit him. Carey Davis recovered at Cincinnati's 20.
The Steelers came away from that with a 21-yard Jeff Reed field goal and a 10-7 lead.
A final scoring drive of the first half began at their 34. Roethlisberger completed 8 of 12 -- one a spike to kill the clock -- on the drive, the final one to Ward of 2 yards for the touchdown that put them ahead, 17-7, with 10 seconds left.
Parker fumbled the ball twice in the third quarter. The first time, he was saved after Cincinnati's Jonathan Joseph returned it 24 yards for a touchdown. Tomlin challenged the play and it was overturned because Parker was ruled down.
There was no saving Parker on his next fumble. This one popped out of his arms while he was still upright and hit by tackle Bryan Robinson.
The Bengals' Deltha O'Neal recovered at the Steelers' 25, and that turnover became a 24-yard Graham field goal, cutting the home club's lead to 17-10.
Rookie tight end Matt Spaeth caught a pooch kickoff and the Steelers started another scoring drive at their 39.
Ward took over that drive. He caught two third-down passes, one as he was hit so hard by Madieu Williams that the Bengals safety had to leave the game with a thigh injury.
Then, Ward caught the final pass. He lined up as the lone receiver on the left. Roethlisberger took the snap and quickly threw it to Ward running an in-route. He caught it, then muscled his way into the end zone for the 64th time in his career in the regular season.
That gave the Steelers a two-touchdown lead and they held off Cincinnati the rest of the way.
Parker continued to have trouble holding onto the football, however, and fumbled on the first play of the next series. Again he was saved when replay upheld the ruling on the field that his knee hit the ground before the ball came loose.
But, incredible as it might seem, Parker fumbled on the very next play -- his fourth of the game. This time, it was Tomlin's turn to challenge the call and this time the call stood -- a fumble. Officially, it was Parker's second lost fumble.
That gave Cincinnati the ball at its 47 with 12:31 left. Again, the Steelers' defense held on downs to force a punt.
The Steelers had not given up a sack until end Robert Geathers not only sacked Roethlisberger, but also dropped him in the end zone for a safety with 10 minutes to go. They got a break when Bengals cornerback Leon Hall was called for holding on the play and the Steelers had a first down at the 11 instead.
That did not get them out of the woods totally. Joseph intercepted a Roethlisberger pass intended for Cedrick Wilson and returned it 7 yards to the Steelers' 17. It was the fourth turnover of the game for the Steelers.
The defense came through with another big save, however. Cincinnati reached the 3, where a fade pass to Chris Henry was complete, but the receiver had just one foot in bounds. On fourth down, Hoshmandzadeh appeared to catch Palmer's quick, short pass over the middle but linebacker Larry Foote broke it up.
"We did a good job," said Foote, who had the only sack of the game.
Career TD catches
Hines Ward jumped to the top of the Steelers' all-time career touchdown receptions list with his 63rd and 64th touchdown catches last night.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published November 6, 2007 4:15 AM