CINCINNATI – The Steelers are standing in a hole like they have not been in for 11 years.
The only question now is if they’ll stop digging themselves deeper or try to climb out.
Rookie Giovanni Bernard scored a pair of touchdowns as Cincinnati Pittsburgh dropped to 0-2 for the first time since 2002 Monday night with a 20-10 defeat at Paul Brown Stadium.
“We have work to do,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “We aren’t going to hide from that fact. We are going to embrace it and accept it, and understand that there is some misery that comes from the position we are in right now.”
Much as they did in a season-opening 16-9 loss to Tennessee at Heinz Field a week before, the Steelers were the main cause of their woes.
Last week it was a bad connection on a handoff between Ben Roethlisberger and Isaac Redman that resulted in a fumble into the end zone. This time around, it was a fumble by tight end David Paulson at the end of a 34-yard completion to the Cincinnati 16.
Paulson was initially ruled down by contact and Roethlisberger hurried the Steelers toward the line of scrimmage to run another play before a challenge flag could be thrown.
But before the Steelers could snap the ball, Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis threw a challenge flag and the play was ruled a fumble with clear recovery of the loose ball by cornerback Adam Jones.
“They had some momentum going there and we were able to get it back,” admitted Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, a McDonald native and Fort Cherry High School graduate who improved to 7-15 against the Steelers.
The Steelers, who already led 3-0 on a 44-yard Shaun Suisham field goal that was set up by a 40-yard punt return by Antonio Brown, then gave up a 61-yard completion to rookie tight end Tyler Eifert on a blown coverage that set up a 7-yard touchdown run by rookie Giovanni Bernard.
“That sequence was probably a minimum of a 10-point swing,” said Tomlin.
Cincinnati took a 10-3 lead on its next possession on a 41-yard Mike Nugent field goal, but the Steelers tied the game right after the two-minute warning on a 1-yard TD pass from Roethlisberger to Ryan Moye – Moye’s first career reception – following a 43-yard catch-and-run by Emmanuel Sanders that came up just short of the end zone.
Pittsburgh forced a three-and-out on Cincinnati’s opening possession of the second half and took possession following a punt at its own 37. On third-and-10, Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure and completed a pass to Brown for a 33-yard gain to the Cincinnati 30.
But right tackle Marcus Gilbert was called for a tripping penalty – Pittsburgh’s first infraction of the game – negating the gain. Replays showed that Gilbert went to the ground while blocking his man and a Bengals defender tripped over his leg. But there did not appear to be any intent to trip on Gilbert’s part.
“That was the worst call I’ve ever seen,” said Gilbert.
It essentially killed any momentum the Steelers would have in the second half. Pittsburgh had minus-2 yards of offense in the third quarter as Roethlisberger was sacked – one of just two time he was taken down – on the ensuing third-down play.
“It’s frustrating,” said Roethlisberger, who completed 20 of 37 passes for 251 yards. “We had some big plays called back because of penalties, and just give them credit. They threw a lot of different looks at us and we didn’t — I didn’t — make enough plays to get it done tonight.”
Cincinnati (1-1) again made the Steelers pay as Andy Dalton, who threw for 280 yards, threw a short pass over the middle to Bernard, who outraced Ryan Clark and Kion Wilson to the sideline and into the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Bengals a 17-10 lead.
The Bengals made it 20-10 with a 25-yard Nugent field goal with 7:54 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Steelers took the ensuing possession from their own 18 to the Cincinnati 27. But Roethlisberger slightly overthrew Jerricho Cotchery on a crossing route and the ball tipped off the leaping receivers hands. Safety Reggie Nelson made a diving interception at the 13 to give Cincinnati the ball back with 4:55 remaining in the game.
The Steelers have now score just two touchdowns and 19 total points in two games. But Roethlisberger doesn’t feel the slow start means the offense is in trouble.
“Don’t think so. Nope,” he said. “But the quarterback’s got to play better, and he will.”
Odds and end zones
Former Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison did not record a tackle for the Bengals. … The Steelers rushed the ball for just 44 yards on 16 attempts. … Isaac Redman was slated to start the game at running back, but took a shot to the head while blocking on the opening kickoff. He returned in the second half and gained four yards on three carries. Felix Jones started in his place and had 37 yards on 10 carries. … Rookie Jarvis Jones made his first start at outside linebacker and had six tackles. … The Steelers had just three penalties for 29 yards. … Ike Taylor limited Cincinnati All-Pro receiver A.J. Green to six receptions on 14 targets for 41 yards.