Stunning as it was disturbing, the Steelers for the second straight week started out like gang-busters, had chance after chance to beat a team they have owned the last five seasons, and in the final seconds, gave the game away with their defense looking like they had just run gasers on the first day of training camp.
Yes, the Steelers are indeed in a slump, as they fell to the Bengals 23-20, this after holding a commanding 20-9 lead entering the fourth quarter. The Steelers defense, best in the league a season ago, allowed drives of 85 yards and 71 yards, both for touchdowns, as the Bengals rallied to drop the defending champs to 1-2.
“We got to make critical plays at critical moments,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ve got the players to do that, we have people whose resumes are full of those kinds of plays, we got to find a way to get it out of them. We had an opportunity to win that football game, and we were not able to do that.”
The second long drive for the Bengals came with the game on the line after the Steelers punted from their own 37 with 5:14 left. Cincy went 16 plays, with Carson Palmer going 8-for-13 on the drive which included two fourth down conversions and then the final nail in the Steelers coffin, a four-yard touchdown to a wide open Andre Caldwell in the middle of the end zone that James Farrior took responsibility for.
“Not really mental mistakes, physical mistakes, not being in the right place, making tackles” Farrior said.
Truth be told, the game should have never come down to it. The Steelers outgained the Bengals 373 to 273, held the ball for 34:42 to 25:18, and built a 13-0 led and then a 20-9 lead, only to give both of them up. They even went over 100 yards rushing, as Willie Parker ran for 93 yards, and the team put up 102 yards on 28 carries.
Ben Roethilsberger was 22-for-31 for 276 with a throwing score to Parker, and then a rushing score that made it 20-9 with three minutes left in the third quarter. He also though gave up six points as he threw a pick six to the Bengals Johnathan Joseph that cut the Steelers lead to 13-9 after they missed the extra point with 13:35 to play in the third quarter.
Tomlin kept stressing how the team failed to take care of the details. And that was never more evident in the third quarter after the Bengals touchdown when Roethlisberger went deep down the middle to Limas Sweed, who was a step ahead of the defense in the end zone for what would have been a sure touchdown. Instead, just like the AFC title game in January, Sweed dropped the ball, and after Jeff Reed missed a 52-yard field goal, an opportunity was lost.
“Really what it is it’s the story of the National Football League,” Tomlin said. “We got to get on the details, this is the ultimate parity league, when your on those details, you find ways to win close games, and you find ways to close games out, simply because your livin and performin right. We accept responsibility for that.”
And it’s been those chances and opportunities the past two weeks that have the Steelers starting to look like the 2006 version, a team coming off a Super Bowl title that started the season 2-6. For those that were there that season, they need to make sure this year is not a full blown repeat with a Sunday night game vs San Diego staring them in the face.
“We’re Super Bowl champions, and we’re starting 1-2, that’s not how we envisioned our season starting,” Hines Ward said.