Holmes takes a licking, but gets offense ticking

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Santonio Holmes wasn't having a terribly memorable season anyway, but after last night's meeting with Cincinnati's Chris Crocker on a snowy North Side lawn, you had to wonder if he'd remember any of it.

Crocker rammed into Holmes 20 yards from the goal line at Heinz Field's open end, using the exact technique the National Football League swears it detests, full speed helmet-to-helmet, with evident malice. Though he didn't launch himself, which was the only reason Holmes was able to leave the field in any kind wobbly vertical attitude, Crocker should be scolded, fined and made to watch a continuous loop of the Bengals offense until he weeps.

Asked about the hit on his valuable deep threat, Mike Tomlin said, "I'm not going to get into anything on the officiating."

Of course, there was no flag, so that comment was telling.

This came early in the third quarter of the Steelers' methodical stone cold clubbing of the 1-9-1 visitors, who began the night missing seven starters including strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe, for whom Crocker started. The missing also included overexposed wideout Chad Ocho Cinco, who was deactivated over an apparent violation of team rules.

Wait, the Bengals have team rules?

Holmes had just come out of his break in the right slot, taken Ben Roethlisberger's fastball for his fifth catch of the night, and presumably had begun to at least ponder a move that would take him toward his first 100-yard performance of the season and some measure of atonement from the terrible game he played on this same stage just four games ago.

"I don't think it was dirty," Roethlisberger said of the collision. "I told the O-line, 'Look, don't retaliate. It wasn't dirty.' He [Crocker] didn't leave his feet. I felt bad for [Holmes]. I was the first one to him. He's a very tough receiver. He held on to the ball."

Ben's was a minority opinion. Heath Miller, split to the opposite side of the formation, heard it without seeing it. When Steelers training personnel reached Holmes, some yelled at Crocker. Craig Wolfley, the sideline reporter on the radio broadcast, described it as "helmet-to-helmet all the way. There'll be a fine."

Crocker ended his night, but if Holmes doesn't remember any of it, let's at least do him the courtesy of remembering it for him. And let's not understate it, because when this offense again showed up with no apparent purpose -- it finally broke 123 minutes and five seconds of touchdown-free football when Roethlisberger found Miller with a 3-yard scoring toss early in last night's second quarter -- it was Holmes who cleaned its fuel injectors just enough to pull away from the worst team in the AFC.

Holmes shredded Cincinnati's already tattered secondary late in the second quarter, hauling in 27- and 22-yard catches that led directly to Jeff Reed's first field goal, the one that gave the Steelers their first lead, the lead they never relinquished.

The 10-7 halftime lead was identical to the situation in Cincinnati a month ago, but on the Steelers' first offensive opportunity after intermission, it was again Holmes who took a quick slant 19 yards into Bengals territory. Four plays later, Holmes tried the same slant, and the phone's probably been ringing in his head ever since.

He left with 84 yards on five catches, best among Roethlisberger's targets, and not until the offense seemed fully operational.

It'd be a shame if he were unable to play a week from Sunday, when the Steelers begin the brutal schedule slice that goes Patriots-Cowboys-Ravens-Titans. He might have been turning a corner on a disappointing season in which he has scored exactly one more touchdown than linebacker LaMarr Woodley, meaning two.

Against San Diego last weekend, he came out of breaks slowly and nearly cost the Steelers one of their critical field goals by staying in bounds near the end of the half. Hines Ward actually forced him out.

Tomlin wasn't ready to evaluate Holmes individually.

"As a team we go into a rhythm and did some good things offensively," said the head coach who ran his record in prime time to 5-0 this year and 9-1 overall. "Thankfully, Santonio is going to be fine. It wouldn't have been prudent to put him back in the game."

Holmes took his concussion and left the locker room under his own power.

"Yeah I'm OK," he said. "No interviews. No interviews."

So yeah, I guess he's fine.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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