Steelers 23, Bengals 7
By Mike Batista
Thwapp! Biff! Zowie!
Batman and Robin have saved the Steelers again. And yes, "Biff" is an actual word from a fight scene in the "Batman" TV series, not some rich blond guy with a sweater draped around his shoulders and a girlfriend named Muffy.
A week after teaming up to snatch the victory from the dastardly Ravens, Troy Polamalu (Batman) and LaMarr Woodley (let's just say Robin's all grown up now and a little bit bigger than Batman) provided the Steelers with their only touchdowns in Sunday's 23-7 win over the Bengals, who considering their feline nickname and performance this season, could be cast as the Catwoman of the NFL.
For the second straight week, there would have been no Steelers touchdowns without the handiwork of the Steelers' Dymanic Defensive Duo.
Unlike the Ravens last week, the Bengals didn't have the Steelers tied to a spit in one of those "Same Bat Time. Same Bat Channel" cliffhangers. But just when the Bengals' upset plot started coming together, Polamalu was there to answer the Bat Phone.
The Bengals scored on the game's opening drive and held a 7-0 lead for most of the first half. The frustration was slowly starting to snowball when Polamalu picked off Carson Palmer and returned it 45 yards for a game-tying touchdown late in the first half.
Polamalu didn't have to do a lot of zig-zagging on his way to the end zone this time. His path was mostly unobstructed until Palmer, his former USC teammate, attempted to knock him out of bounds near the 4-yard-line. So he took to the air, even though Batman isn't a flying superhero, and stuck out his arm to get the ball through the end zone for the TD.
Considering the Steelers' chances of getting the ball into the end zone from the 4, Polamalu's extra effort was needed.
Shaun Suisham added a field goal to give the Steelers a 10-7 halftime lead and another in the third quarter to make it 13-7. While Suisham has made all nine of his field goal attempts as a Steeler and paper towel dispensers in western Pennsylvania are resting easier, Steelers fans were still restless early in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
The Steelers were closing in on another field goal and a two-possession lead when Ben Roethlisberger was sacked on back-to-back plays for 17 yards, yanking them from field goal range and forcing new punter Jeremy Kapinos into action.
But on the first play of the Bengals' ensuing possession, Woodley picked off Palmer and ran it in 14 yards for the touchdown and a 20-7 lead with about 12 minutes to go. It was the linebacker's third career interception, and it gives me a chance to correct an omission in last week's column.
Pick-up and delivery
Woodley has mastered the art of picking up a fumble, not just falling on it, and returning it a long way. It's becoming an annual phenomenon, and he always seems to do it against teams who also could be considered the Catwoman of the NFL with their purple uniforms.
Last week, Woodley scooped up the fumble forced by Polamalu and returned it 20 yards to the Ravens' 9 to set up the Steelers' game-winning touchdown. Last year against the Vikings, he cleaned up a fumble forced by Brett Keisel and returned it 77 yards for a touchdown to give the Steelers a 20-10 lead in a game they went on to win 27-17. In 2008 against the Ravens, he took a fumble forced by James Harrison and brought it in seven yards for the TD and a 17-13 Steelers lead. They went on to win that game 23-20 in overtime.
Woodley also had two sacks Sunday. It was Polamalu, however, who ultimately handcuffed the Bengals and brought them before Chief O'Hara and Commissioner Gordon (who the Steelers would probably rather see in Gotham City than Commissioner Goodell).
The Bengals still were within a pair of touchdowns and two-point conversions when they moved the ball to the Steelers' 16 with just over two minutes left. Palmer took a shot at the end zone, but there was Polamalu with his second interception.
OK, maybe what Polamalu did next was evidence of his heavy hair weighing down his brain. All he had to do was hit the ground to finish off the Bengals. Instead, he returned the ball and tried to lateral to Bryant McFadden at the Steelers' 10, momentarily leaving a crack in the door for the Bengals. The ball fell on the ground in front of McFadden, but he picked it up and finally secured the win for the Steelers.
Polamalu is now tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions this season. The Steelers' four-game winning streak has coincided with Polamalu's emergence from his mid-season funk. They definitely don't beat the Ravens without Polamalu. They might not beat the Bills without him, and they would have had a much harder time beating the Bengals without him.
Yet it's clear Polamalu isn't 100 percent healthy. He hurt something during his touchdown return and limped for the rest of the game. I'm running out of ways to say that Polamalu's absence sank the Steelers' 2009 season. All I can say is that watching Polamalu is like a parent watching a 3-year-old at the playground. You don't want him to get hurt.
As of Monday morning, no news came out about any Polamalu injury. There was talk that he aggravated an ankle injury he's had all season. Maybe it's his calf. Maybe it's a pulled follicle. Whatever it is, if the Steelers (10-3) win their three remaining games they'll earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. That would come in handy considering how dinged up Polamalu is.
Another concern for the Steelers is their offense. In their last 185 minutes of football, the Steelers' only touchdown drive on offense has gone for nine yards.
On one hand, there also was a lot of bellyaching about the Steelers' offense and offensive line in the late autumn of 2008, and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
On the other hand, the Bengals (2-11) did drop three interceptions Sunday, and counting on defensive touchdowns and a flurry of field goals to win games is reminiscent of those Steelers teams led by Neil O'Donnell and Kordell Stewart. Those teams could go far in the playoffs, but they didn't win Super Bowls.
The offense as a unit was not up to snuff Sunday. There were, however, some strong individual performances, including that of Hines Ward. The 13-year veteran had eight receptions, his most in a game this season, for 115 yards.
Ward's 18-yard reception got the Steelers into Bengals territory and helped set up their go-ahead field goal at the end of the first half. His 21-yard catch got the Steelers to the Bengals' 9 and led to the Steelers' field goal on the opening drive of the second half. He also caught one for 29 yards to help get the Steelers out of a 2nd-and-30 hole late in the third quarter.
Hines Ward. That's Burt Ward's brother, right?