Everything, it seemed, slipped through the Steelers' hands yesterday at Heinz Field. There were two interceptions dropped by Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, a 10-point lead they held on the Indianapolis Colts, and their first-place cushion in the AFC North.
What once looked to be a commanding lead in their division slipped away to nothing when the Steelers lost their second consecutive game at Heinz Field, 24-20, to the Colts in a fashion new to them.
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It had been 40 years since the Colts last won in Pittsburgh, and it may be another 40 before the Steelers forget how that drought ended.
Ben Roethlisberger (30 of 42, 284 yards) threw three interceptions and for no touchdowns, and Taylor and Polamalu dropped potential interceptions that made a 14-point difference, and the Steelers could not run on the 25th-ranked run defense in the NFL.
"We didn't do the things that we normally do to win games," linebacker James Harrison said. "We have to finish it out at the end. We had the lead at the end and let it slip away."
So, too, the division lead. The Steelers at 6-3 suddenly find themselves tied with the revived Baltimore Ravens. They also suddenly cannot run the ball.
They managed only 55 net yards yesterday, 57 of them from starter Mewelde Moore on 24 carries. While Moore scored on two short touchdown runs, he and his teammates could not punch it in from the 2 in a crucial fourth-quarter attempt.
Moore was stopped twice by defensive tackle Eric Foster, and Jeff Reed kicked a short field goal to put the Steelers in front, 20-17, yet knowing they had blown a chance to go up by a touchdown.
"We have to get the ball in the end zone," Hines Ward said. "The ball on the 2-yard line, we pride ourselves getting the ball in the end zone. That's a big turnaround, three points instead of a touchdown."
Peyton Manning and the Colts (5-4) made them pay five minutes later. After cornerback Tim Jennings pilfered a Roethlisberger pass at the Steelers' 32, it took Indianapolis only four plays to take its only lead.
Manning found running back Dominic Rhodes behind a scrambling Polamalu and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to him for the winner with 3:04 left. It was Manning's third touchdown pass of the game, and it stood as the winner when Roethlisberger's Hail Mary pass from the 27 into the Colts' end zone was intercepted on the last play.
"That was my man," inside linebacker James Farrior admitted of the Colts' winning touchdown. "I had him man-to-man, they ran a fake toss to him. I thought it was a running play. He slipped out of the backfield, and I kind of sorta lost track of him. That wasn't Troy's fault."
Polamalu's error occurred earlier, near the end of the first half with the Steelers ahead, 17-7. Manning, who was not having a particularly good day (21 of 40, 240 yards), threw a pass right to Polamalu near the Steelers' 30. With 70 yards of green Heinz Field grass and nothing else in front of him, he dropped it. Three plays later, cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, taken off the scrap heap earlier this year by the Colts, intercepted Roethlisberger with 1:24 left.
Manning turned that one into gold, too, by throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark with six seconds left. It was game on at halftime, 17-14.
"If this were an individual sport and I lost the game, I wouldn't feel so bad," Roethlisberger said. "It's letting the guys down, letting your teammates down.
"It hurts. You never hear me say 'I' anything, but I lost this game."
There was some question whether Roethlisberger would play after his shoulder was reinjured in Washington last week. But he practiced Friday for the first time and played the entire way.
He rarely threw deep, although that was due more to the cover-2 umbrella defense the Colts played than a sore shoulder.
If Roethlisberger's arm was sore, he did nothing to let on while completing all four of his passes for 48 yards on the opening drive. He threw a 23-yarder to Santonio Holmes and a 16-yarder to Nate Washington before Moore scored from 1 yard.
The Colts struck quickly to tie it, 7-7. Manning threw a deep pass down the left side to Reggie Wayne. Taylor moved into perfect position behind Wayne and leaped to make the interception. The ball popped off both of his hands and into Wayne's at the 30. Wayne easily covered the final 30 yards for a 65-yard touchdown reception, 30 yards longer than any previous reception against the Steelers this season.
"Once I saw the ball, I thought I tipped it my way, but he was right in position to catch the ball," Taylor said. "The game of football is about inches. At the same time, that's just the way the ball bounces sometimes."
The Steelers used an old-fashioned flea-flicker to reclaim the lead, 14-7, early in the second quarter. From the Colts' 42, Roethlisberger handed off to Moore, who took a step forward, stopped and flipped the ball back to his quarterback. The pitch was a little high, but Roethlisberger pulled it down and threw a pass to Ward deep on the right.
Ward eluded safety Bob Sanders to catch it at the 10, circled around and ran it to the 1. Moore scored standing up on the next play.
Jeff Reed put the Steelers ahead, 17-7, when he kicked a 42-yard field goal with 4:18 left in the half, and that's when things started breaking the other way.
First came Polamalu's drop, then Ratliff's interception and Clark's touchdown before the half.
Indianapolis tied it, 17-17, on the first drive of the second half, moving 56 yards in a dozen plays and ending it with Adam Vinatieri's 36-yard field goal.
Reed put the Steelers back on top with his 24-yard field goal, but they weren't celebrating.
"That's typical Steelers, and we didn't come through," Ward said. "It was a huge turnaround. You put up seven points, and it puts more pressure on them. They shut us down, and we end up kicking a field goal."
And, later, kicking themselves.
"We felt like we had this game and we lost it," Ward said.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published November 10, 2008 5:00 AM