Steelers lose battle of bunglers
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CINCINNATI -- This should have been the introduction to a common football tale, a simple story of three base elements:
Emergence -- the blossoming of Steelers receiver Mike Wallace into a viable weapon.
Re-emergence -- the spectacle of Willie Parker taking his rightful place at the core of the Steelers' offense.
And finally ...
Submergence -- the retreat to the backwaters of the depth chart by Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed, or draft choices Nos. 1 and 2 from 2008.
Sweed dropped a touchdown pass yesterday, which just happened to stand up as the arithmetic difference between victory and defeat, and Mendenhall helped run out the clock on the Steelers with a direction-less kickoff return in the game's final seconds, but the Steelers probably didn't need either of those youngsters to lose to the Cincinnati Bengals.
There were plenty of decorated veterans working hard at it for most of the second half and all of the fourth quarter. In a game when the Bengals nearly were booed off the field for repeated bursts of gross incompetence, Mike Tomlin's team stopped what it was doing with a 13-point lead and decided to see if it could out-pratfall one of the league's great slapstick acts.
"We've got to make critical plays at critical moments," Tomlin said 10 minutes after the Steelers' first loss in the AFC North Division since 2007. "We have people whose resumes are filled with those type of plays. We just have to get it out of them."
Losses have been remarkably few in the burgeoning Tomlin era, but this was easily the worst. It wasn't the thorough whipping endured a year ago at Tennessee or at New England the year before, and it had none of the import of a home playoff loss to Jacksonville, but for raw goal-line to goal-line ineptitude, it was the topper.
"All losses are the worst, whether they're 35-0 or 16-15," said defensive back Deshea Townsend, as tenured a Steelers player as you could find yesterday in the locker room. "A lot of things went wrong out there, but we still were winning. We made a lot of mistakes but we had the opportunities to overcome them. You have to overcome those things, and we came up short."
Mistake 1 came from the coaching staff, which considered several options for fourth-and-4 at the Cincinnati 35 with the Steelers leading, 13-0. Too distant for a field-goal try, to near for a punt, the pass play called took just long enough for Ben Roethlisberger to get pressured into a desperate, harmless throw. Operating out of the shotgun, Roethlisberger easily could have dropped a pooch punt inside the Bengals' 15 or better. He has executed that very play previously. That would have pinned Carson Palmer's bumbling offense down until the second half, when the Steelers were going to receive the kickoff, but instead the Bengals took over at the 35 and, just as Chad Ochocinco probably had begun to consider tweeting "Palmer stinks," the quarterback moved the Bengals 49 yards in 66 seconds to a field goal.
From that point, the Bengals outscored the Steelers, 20-7.
Tomlin surely thought there was no point in pinning the Bengals back there, since it looked as though Palmer could be set up at the Steelers' 1 and not threaten anyone. He had four passes batted down, misdirected about 14 others, and even a winning touchdown pass capping a 71-yard drive with 14 seconds left could lift his passer rating only to a lukewarm 76.7.
Bengals mistakes extended not only to the defense, but to their special teams, where center Brad St. Louis' snap for an extra point sailed halfway to the other St. Louis. I guess they don't call him the long snapper for nothing.
But for all of this, there was simply no amount of Cincinnati incompetence the Steelers couldn't overcome.
On their first possession after intermission, Roethlisberger threw with perfect imperfection to Cincinnati corner Johnathan Joseph, who returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. Clearly a miscommunication, because otherwise you would have thought Roethlisberger was channeling his inner Neil O'Donnell.
"We won't point fingers," Roethlisberger said.
Translation: "Wasn't me."
Santonio Holmes was headed upfield in that general area, not to point fingers, but Holmes had a second consecutive miserable game, catching only one of five balls thrown to him.
Along with his historic 10,000th receiving yard, Hines Ward collected twin interference penalties to help keep the offense, as Tomlin might say, mistake capable.
Finally, for a second consecutive week, the revered Steelers defense allowed a fourth-quarter scoring drive, not to mention 139 yards of Bengals offense in that final 15 minutes.
"We have to learn to finish, man," said cornerback Ike Taylor, who nearly won the game himself with three spectacular pass breakups on the Bengals' final drive, one against Ochocinco in the end zone. "At the end of halves, at the end of games, we've got to get off the field."
You knew the Bengals eventually would win one of these affairs, but you would never have guessed it would be by getting outbungled.
First Published September 28, 2009 12:00 am