Steelers defense leads to divisional win
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer calls Troy Polamalu the NFL's best defensive player. This must be why.
Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley returned interceptions for Pittsburgh's only touchdowns and the Steelers sent Cincinnati to a franchise record-tying 10th consecutive defeat, winning 23-7 on Sunday.
The Steelers (10-3) couldn't get into the end zone on offense despite dominating the time of possession - a 9 1/2-minute drive in the second half produced no scoring - but it didn't matter as they closed in on a playoff spot by playing just well enough to beat the Bengals (2-11).
Palmer threw three interceptions, two to former college teammate Polamalu, as Cincinnati matched the David Shula-coached 1993 Bengals by losing 10 consecutive games in the same season. The overall franchise record is 11 consecutive defeats from 1992-93.
For the second week in a row, it was Polamalu who made the Steelers' pivotal play. Last week, he forced a fumble in the fourth quarter that led to Ben Roethlisberger's decisive TD pass to running back Isaac Redman and a 13-10 victory in Baltimore that gave Pittsburgh the AFC North lead.
This time, Polamalu cut in front of intended receiver Terrell Owens to intercept Palmer's sideline pass and return it 45 yards for a touchdown, tying it at 7 with 4 1/2 minutes left in the first half. Both of Polamalu's career regular-season interception return touchdowns are against Palmer, who roomed with Polamalu while at Southern Cal. Polamalu had the other in 2004.
Along the bench, Palmer and Owens talked briefly about an apparently incorrectly run pass route. An unhappy Palmer walked away from Owens after apparently not being happy with the explanation.
The Steelers, up 13-7 after the long but unproductive drive that extended over much of the third quarter, sealed it when Woodley scored on a 14-yard interception return early in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers hadn't had two interception return touchdowns in a game since Dewayne Washington scored twice against Jacksonville in 1998.
Polamalu also made an interception with two minutes remaining, his sixth of the season, after Cincinnati had driven to the Steelers 16.
That pass also was intended for Owens, who came in needing only 39 yards to become only the third receiver in NFL history with 10 1,000-yard seasons but made only one catch for 22 yards.
Long before that, Palmer drove the Bengals 69 yards on an opening possession that ended with his 1-yard scoring pass to Andrew Whitworth on a tackle-eligible play that made it 7-0. Whitworth is the first Bengals offensive lineman to score a touchdown in 15 seasons.
Cincinnati's offense spent much of the rest of the game huddling along the sideline as Pittsburgh held the ball for 13:15 of the third quarter, even though leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall ended with a nondescript 66 yards on 18 carries.
The Steelers didn't get much out of all these drives, only three field goals by the perfect-so-far Shaun Suisham, but still won their fourth in a row overall and swept the season series. Hines Ward made eight catches for 115 yards.
Suisham, signed last month after longtime kicker Jeff Reed was cut, converted from the 23, 35 and 41 and is 9 for 9 with Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger had an active if not entirely productive afternoon in a game played mostly in rain, although pregame forecasts of in-game snow and whipping winds did not occur. The dire forecast apparently led nearly 8,000 fans to stay away from 65,050-seat Heinz Field.
Roethlisberger, playing on a gimpy right foot and wearing a visor in the first half to protect his broken nose, took hits from three different defenders on one play before getting loose to complete a 9-yard pass to Mendenhall. He also improvised after a shotgun snap sailed high, scrambling for 13 yards to the 5 to set up Suisham's 23-yarder, which put Pittsburgh up 10-7 at the half.