It has been a
famously trying seven months for Roethlisberger, from an NFL championship in
February to a serious motorcycle accident in June to an emergency appendectomy
four nights before the season opener against Miami, to his first start 11 days
later on a Monday night in Jacksonville, where he struggled in a 9--0 loss.
That off-key showing sparked debate as to whether he'd been rushed back too
quickly. "Ben had a hell of an off-season," says Ward. "You'd
expect the timing to be off, and it was. But we didn't catch every ball, and we
didn't protect him all that well. The whole team's performance against
Jacksonville was embarrassing, not just Ben's."
sharp early against the Bengals, guiding the Steelers 80 yards on a first-drive
score. He was seldom sharp again, finishing with a hideous 30.7 quarterback
rating and at his low point getting picked by Delthea O'Neal on a badly
underthrown deep ball late in the third quarter with the Steelers clinging to a
17--14 lead. After the interception, the second of three, Roethlisberger was
booed at home, perhaps for the first time in his career.
Palmer was much
better, albeit far from perfect. He spent long hours in the off-season watching
tape of the game in which he was injured. "Not because I wanted to relive
the hit," he said. "I wanted to learn more about Pittsburgh's defense,
what they like to do in certain situations." By halftime Palmer had
connected on 13 of 17 passes and hit Henry twice for touchdowns.
In the second half,
however, Pittsburgh dialed up the ferocity of its pass rush, led by linebackers
Clark Haggans (two sacks) and Larry Foote (seven tackles, one sack). Palmer
struggled to find space in the pocket and fumbled several times when pressured.
On the perimeter, Pittsburgh defenders trash-talked Houshmandzadeh and Johnson.
The Bengals talked back, inciting Palmer's anger. Said Houshmandzadeh,
"We're in the huddle in the fourth quarter, down by three points, and
Carson just says to me and Chad, 'Shut up and play.'"
" Pittsburgh tries to get you into their game, and their game is to jaw a
lot. We were getting a little caught up in the moment, and that's not our
Steelers handed Palmer his chances to win. With just over eight minutes to
play, return man Ricardo Colclough muffed a punt in the red zone, and 40
seconds later running back Vernon Haynes fumbled at the Steelers' 30. Palmer
converted both turnovers into one-play drives, twice hitting Houshmandzedah for
touchdowns that silenced Heinz Field.
The Bengals might
not need such generosity next time. Houshmandzadeh was making his first
appearance since bruising his heel on Aug. 28, an injury still so sore that
when he spun around in the stadium hallway to pick his iPod off the floor after
dropping it, he hopped in pain. The Bengals also played without starting center
Rich Braham (bruised knee) and starting strong safety Dexter Jackson (sprained
ankle), who are expected back soon. It is a team rising.
And their work is
just beginning in earnest. There is a three-week stretch from late October into
early November when the Bengals play Carolina, Atlanta and the first of two
games with the Ravens. Pittsburgh awaits a rematch on New Year's Eve, with
playoff positions possibly in the balance.
It is only
September. But on this afternoon, it was instructive to note the symbolism in
Palmer ending his work against the Steelers not by clutching a knee but by