By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers offense played well sporadically against the Cincinnati Bengals, but once again it was the defense that turned the game around and eventually won it.
Interception returns for touchdowns by Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley completed the Steelers domination over the Bengals in a 23-7 AFC North victory Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. The Steelers improved to 10-3, while Cincinnati lost its 10th straight to fall to 2-11.
Polamalu also intercepted former college roommate Carson Palmer at the goal line and ran it out for a few yards to stop the final Bengals’ drive. Cincinnati had driven into the red zone, but couldn’t penetrate the goal line.
The Steelers appeared to be on their way to putting the game away on offense, as Ben Roethlisberger took them on a long drive from their 18. Short first-down passes to Hines Ward and Mike Wallace kept the drive alive. And even after consecutive holding penalties, Roethlisberger found Ward for 29, Isaac Redman for 12 on third-and-one and after another holding call, Wallace for 22 on a screen. A Wallace reverse for 12 got into the red zone, but a short run and consecutive sacks forced a punt.
On first down from the 10, Woodley picked off Palmer to provide the knockout punch for the Bengals. The nail was driven in on Shaun Suisham’s third field goal, a 41-yarder, after a seven-play drive in 4:16 that included a 33-yard pass to Wallace. It was Suisham’s ninth field goal in nine attempts for the Steelers.
The Steelers offense was rather lackluster throughout most of the first half, so the defense had to change momentum on its own. And Polamalu was just the guy to do it. Polamalu read a Palmer pass down the middle to Terrell Owens, picked it off and raced 45 yards to the end zone to tie the score, 7-7.
The Steelers led 10-7 at halftime, but achieved that with scores on their final two possessions. The Bengals went the distance on their opening drive, eight plays and 69 yards in 5:02, on a play-action toss from Palmer to tackle-eligible Andrew Whitworth from the 1-yard line. A pass-interference call in the end zone on Ike Taylor moved the Bengals 19 yards to the 1.
Woodley jumped offside on third-and-three to keep the drive alive instead of ending it at the 38 on three-and-out. Cedric Benson ran for seven and a first down, and Palmer threw for 22 yards to Owens to the 21. After a short run, Palmer fired into the corner of the end zone, and Taylor was penalized.
The Steelers had a decent drive on their opening possession, including first-down runs by Roethlisberger for two yards and Mewelde Moore for nine. But on second-and-four from the Bengals’ 35-yard line, Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass and was sacked to push the club out of field-goal range.
The teams traded punts, including a 53-yarder inside the 20 by Steelers newcomer Jeremy Kapinos, and then the Bengals started to move with hard running by Bernard Scott, 15-yard pass to Chad Johnson and 24-yarder to Benson. This is when the Steelers defense started to ramp it up.
There was a seven-yard sack by Woodley, solid open-field tackle for minus-3 by Lawrence Timmons and big hit by Ryan Clark to force a punt. It sailed only 29 yards, but was down at the 8. The Steelers drove to midfield, but had to punt.
The club’s defense maintained its intensity level, because Polamalu picked off Palmer — the second time for a pick six in his career — two downs later. Suisham added a 23-yard field goal to give the Steelers a 10-7 halftime lead. The Steelers drove to a first-and-goal from the 5, but couldn’t punch it in.
Roethlisberger hooked up with Antonio Brown for 17, Ward for 18 and an amazing one-handed grab by Antwaan Randle El for 22 to get into the red zone. Center Maurkice Pouncey snapped high to Roethlisberger on first down, but the quarterback pulled it in and then ran for 13 yards to the 5. The possession ended there, and Suisham had to kick a field goal.
The Steelers opened the second half with another long drive into the red zone, but were forced to go for a Suisham field goal from 35 yards. Roethlisberger hit Ward for 23 to change field position immediately and added a 21-yarder later. He also found Brown open for nine yards, but a holding penalty by David Johnson hampered a first-and-goal from the 9. Three pass plays never reached the end zone, and Suisham kicked his eighth field goal in eight attempts.
The Steelers only scored three third-quarter points, but they held the ball 13 minutes, 15 seconds to dominate the third quarter. They drove from their 18 to the Bengals 18, but consecutive sacks moved them out of field-goal range. The drive lasted 15 plays and 9:21, and the punt was caught at the 10. On the first play, however, Woodley picked off Palmer and scored to deflate Cincy.