Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
The Bengals' Tony Stewart comes up with a muffed punt return by Ricardo Colclough in the fourth quarter.
It would not be overly simplistic to blame another regular-season loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on Ricardo Colclough. It was, after all, his muffed attempt to catch a punt in the fourth quarter that resulted in the Bengals' go-ahead touchdown one play later.
Bill Cowher, though, is willing to take the blame. And perhaps he should.
Postgame commentary by Coach Bill Cowher and returner Ricardo Colclough following the Steelers 28-20 loss to the Bengals:
Why is Ricardo Colclough fielding punts?
The Steelers "emotional" penalties
Game recap by the coach
Listen to Cowher's entire postgame press conference
What happened on the muffed punt?
Colclough mishandled a towering 58-yard punt by Kyle Larson in the fourth quarter, letting the ball clang off his hands. Bengals tight end Tony Stewart recovered it at the Steelers' 9.
But it was Cowher who put Colclough back there to handle the punt after Santonio Holmes was the lone returner for the first two times the Bengals punted. And it all goes back to the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers when Colclough had a 22-yard punt return in the fourth quarter that Cowher said "opened my eyes."
"We've been going with Santonio inside the 10-yard line because we feel good about his hands," Cowher said. "Ricardo just misjudged the ball. No one feels worse about it than he does."
Maybe Cowher does.
Colclough, a third-year cornerback, has not exactly been a beacon of stability and assuredness on punt returns. Not in training camp. Not in a regular season that is only three games old.
He misjudged a punt in the season opener against the Miami Dolphins, letting the ball go over his head and nearly fumbling his attempt to catch the ball after it bounced. Last week, he bobbled another punt-return attempt against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Yesterday, though, his gaffe cost the Steelers a potential victory against the Bengals, their chief division rival, and dropped them two games back in the AFC North Division.
"There weren't any problems in the preseason," Cowher said of Colclough. "It hasn't been the smoothest, but I felt good about him. You can put that one on me, as well."
Cowher already had put the blame on himself for 25 yards in unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against two Steelers veterans -- Verron Haynes, who came on to the field and was penalized 15 yards for excessive celebration with Willie Parker after Parker's second touchdown run; and safety Mike Logan, who prompted a 10-yard penalty after he stood over and taunted long-snapper Brad St. Louis after a vicious block on a punt return in the fourth quarter.
Those weren't really Cowher's fault.
He might have been correct about that.
"I just took my eyes off the ball, trying to see where the defenders were so I could try to find some place to go to make something happen," Colclough said, explaining the muffed punt. "Just trying to make a play, that's all. I was just overanxious. I took my eyes off the ball and it bounced off my hands."
To his credit, Colclough didn't even try to blame the swirling winds that gusted to 20 mph at Heinz Field and, at times, blew the ball off the kicking tee.
"No, it didn't do anything," he said. "I got a good read off it. I just took my eyes off it."
Colclough and Holmes have been sharing the punt-return duties since rookie Willie Reid, who handled most of the punt returns in the preseason, has been a healthy inactive for the first three games of the regular season. Reid has been deactivated because he is the fifth receiver, and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt never uses more than four in a formation.
Holmes is usually back when the opposing team is near midfield because the Steelers want a sure-handed returner near their goal line. Colclough is usually the returner in situations where the Steelers have more of the field to set up a return.
After Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer needed only one play to capitalize on Colclough's gaffe -- he threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh -- many in the crowd of 64,922 booed Colclough when he came out for the ensuing kickoff.
And when the Bengals punted again after that, Cowher put Holmes back for the final punt against the Bengals, which he returned 14 yards to the Steelers' 21.
"Sometimes the ball tends to carry at the last minute," Colclough said. "It's one of those things you really have no control over, when the ball takes flight and sort of fades away from your face to the left or right a little bit."
At least one person has control over that.
His name is Bill Cowher.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1466.