Two teams tested a theory yesterday at Heinz Field that if you cannot run and you cannot pass, you cannot win a football game. That is, unless you have the luxury of the Steelers kicking off to you.
Neither the Steelers nor the Cincinnati Bengals scored an offensive touchdown, yet for the third time in four games the Steelers' kickoff team allowed a return for a touchdown and it stood up enough for the Bengals to pull off the improbable victory, 18-12, and the two-game sweep of this year's series.
It is the first time the Bengals have swept the series in 11 seasons and it may deliver an AFC North Division title to Cincinnati, which at 7-2 took a one-game lead over the 6-3 Steelers and also claimed any tiebreaker against them.
"Obviously now we have to beat them with overall record," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who dropped an interception that might have turned things in the fourth quarter. "They have the tiebreaker. That's tough. I feel like in order for us to do that, we have to win out. Are we capable? Yes."
First, the Steelers would have to tackle someone after kicking off and score a touchdown here or there. Jeff Reed kicked four short field goals after the Steelers reached at least the Bengals' 12, but it was his kickoff that rookie Bernard Scott brought back 96 yards in the first quarter that was the real boot in the Steelers' behinds.
The extra-point attempt after the touchdown, like many other things on both offenses yesterday, was botched by Cincinnati. The touchdown came after Reed kicked the Steelers into a 3-0 lead with a 28-yard field goal.
"I've been here for 12 years and I've never seen this many touchdowns scored on our kickoff team in one season," Hines Ward said. "It's by far the most since I've been here. We got to rectify it, we have to get guys on there inspired to play. That just takes our crowd out of it and gives them momentum."
Shayne Graham also kicked four field goals for Cincinnati, two in the fourth quarter after Reed's field goal early in the quarter tied the score, 12-12. Graham also missed when he hit the upright from 51 in the first quarter.
About the only good news the Steelers received came from the bad news that safety Troy Polamalu's left knee was re-injured on the game's first drive and he departed. Polamalu was sent for an MRI but sources say it does not appear to be as serious a sprain to his MCL that kept him out for four contests.
With two of the game's better quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer, throwing more like Ben Stiller and Carson Daly, neither offense had much of a chance.
"I played bad," Roethlisberger admitted. "It kind of starts with me up there."
No one in his locker room disagreed with that assessment. Roethlisberger completed 20 of 40 passes for 174 yards with one interception for his worst game in more than a year. He was sacked four times and his passer rating of 51.5 was his lowest since a 38.6 in a loss to the Giants Oct. 26, 2008.
He threw high at times and, when the Steelers tried to go deep, he often under threw his intended receivers, who also had two or three drops.
"Ben threw a few short, high, [three] got batted down," said Santonio Holmes, who led the Steelers with seven catches for 88 yards.
"We were just off," said Ward, who caught four passes for only 24 yards. Roethlisberger did hold the distinction of having the longest run of the day, 15 yards on a scramble. There was little inclination on the Steelers' end to try many other runs. Rashard Mendenhall ran 13 times for 36 yards as the Steelers managed 80 yards on 18 carries.
The Bengals tried harder, especially as they ran the clock on their final 11-play field-goal drive. They ran 29 times for just 61 yards, although they lost the NFL's second-leading rusher, Cedric Benson, to a hip injury in the first half. He ran just seven times.
"We'll take a win any way we can get it," said Palmer, who was 18 of 30 for 178 yards, but with no interceptions and just two sacks, one each by James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
"I think that's something we didn't do as a defense," Clark said of the lack of turnovers. "As solid as we played, we didn't give our offense a chance to have a short field."
They might have done little with it anyway. For the second time this season, the Steelers outgained the Bengals (226 yards to 218) and lost. Four times they reached Cincinnati's 12 or closer; all four ended in field goals.
"We have to find a way to put it in the end zone," Mendenhall said. "When you're playing in this league, you're in the red zone this many times, you have to put it in the end zone. And if you don't, you're susceptible to losing and that's what happened."
Of their four forays inside the 15, the Steelers ran five times for 2 yards, Roethlisberger was 2 of 8 for 8 yards, but was sacked for minus-16 yards and there was one holding penalty for minus-10. Added together, that would be minus-6 yards on nine tries and a penalty.
"We just didn't make the plays that we normally make," Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger's lone interception helped produce a Cincinnati field goal early in the third quarter. He threw a pass behind Ward on a short slant over the middle, cornerback Morgant Trent tipped it and Frostee Rucker pulled down the short popup, giving the Bengals the ball at the Steelers' 14.
Then, given the ball at the Steelers' 33 with 1:56 to go, Roethlisberger, who has pulled out so many games in similar situations, threw four incompletions.
"Just from the get-go, we weren't on," Roethlisberger said. "Offensively, we weren't good in the red zone, we weren't good in the run, we weren't good in the pass. We just didn't play well."
For more on the Steelers, read the new blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published November 16, 2009 5:00 AM