By ALAN ROBINSON, AP Sports Writer
November 25, 2002
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- No lead is safe with the Pittsburgh Steelers. No field goal is a certain one. Their pass defense is in worse shape than their playing field, and it may be the NFL's worst.
For all their problems, struggles and perplexing insistence on blowing big leads at home, the Steelers are in first place in the AFC North. Even if they're not quite sure how they got there -- or how they're staying there.
Kordell Stewart, who may be going back to the bench, and Jerome Bettis, who was getting tired of being on it, teamed with a rookie playing his first NFL game to lead the Steelers past the bungling Cincinnati Bengals 29-21 Sunday.
Jeff Reed experienced another adventuresome day for a Steelers kicker on Heinz Field's terrible turf, missing an extra point that gave the Bengals a chance to tie it in the final minute.
But Reed also kicked field goals of 33, 43 and 45 yards on a torn-up field that was in such bad shape, the Bengals passed up two potential 46-yard Neil Rackers attempts rather than risk a miss.
``It wasn't easy, but we won,'' coach Bill Cowher said.
Mostly, the Steelers (6-4-1) did so because the Bengals (1-10) discovered yet another way to lose, rallying frantically from a 17-point deficit to go ahead 21-20.
``We were really in control of the game,'' coach Dick LeBeau said. ``We had a one-point lead and in pretty good shape to win the game -- and we didn't win it.''
So what else is new? Last week, Corey Dillon couldn't get in from the 1 on the final two plays of a 27-20 loss to the Browns. This time, the Bengals drove to a first down at the 5 in the final minute, only to have Jon Kitna throw four straight incompletions.
``I say it over and over, but it's true,'' said Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, who made seven catches for 152 yards. ``It's just a play here and a play there ... and it kills us.''
It wasn't for lack of opportunities. Remarkably, the Steelers were in danger of going to overtime after they squandered a 17-point lead and missed an extra point for the second time in as many home games. The same scenario played out in a 34-all tie with Atlanta on Nov. 10.
Reed was working on a North Carolina farm then -- and, once he saw Heinz's condition, probably wished he were back there. But he was a major upgrade from Todd Peterson, who missed four of his final six field-goal attempts and an extra point before going on the injured reserve list.
Stewart, making his first start since Sept. 29 for the injured Tommy Maddox, got off to a fast start as Pittsburgh scored on its first three possessions. Ward ran 39 yards on a reverse to lead to the first of Bettis' two scoring runs, then caught a 64-yard scoring pass from Stewart.
Bettis, out of the lineup for four weeks with a sore knee, gained 79 yards to overtake O.J. Simpson for 11th place among NFL career rushers.
But just as he did in rallying the Bengals from a double-digit deficit to upset Pittsburgh last season, Kitna (22-of-39 for 298 yards) led a comeback that ended with his 20-yard touchdown pass to rookie Matt Schobel with 8 1/2 minutes left.
The Bengals could have built on their lead two minutes later, but T.J. Houshmandzadeh's fumbled punt gave Pittsburgh the ball back, and Reed kicked a go-ahead 45-yard field goal. Later, Stewart's 37-yard completion to Ward set up Bettis' 24-yard touchdown run that would have put it out of reach if Reed hadn't missed the extra point.
As his reward for winning for the first time in his last five starts, Stewart may go back to the bench Sunday in Jacksonville if Maddox (spinal cord concussion) is cleared by doctors.
``Tommy's the starter, if he's healthy and he wants to come back, he's entitled to it,'' Stewart said. ``I'm not making it any bigger than it is.''
Just like the Steelers aren't making much of those big leads they're getting.
``Whatever it is, we've got to get it figured out,'' Bettis said. ``When you go up by 17, you don't want to give it back.''
LB Mike Jones, who re-signed with the Steelers last week, wound up playing much of the game after LB John Fiala injured his left knee. ... Cincinnati's Brandon Bennett hyperextended his right knee on a 52-yard kickoff return to start the second half and didn't return. ... Stewart is 35-of-43 for 360 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions the last two weeks. ... Steelers opponents are 28-of-54 in third down conversions in the last three games. ... Pittsburgh is 5-0 against the AFC North. ... The Bengals are assuredof their ninth double-digit loss season in 12 years.
Updated on Monday, Nov 25, 2002 1:40 am, EST
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