PITTSBURGH (AP) -Chad Ochocinco, always the self-promoter, planned to send mustard to the Steelers' defensive backs last week before coach Marvin Lewis halted the condiment giveaway. The Bengals receiver's implied message was that Pittsburgh would be playing catch-up after taking on Cincinnati.
Guess what: He's right.
By losing to the Bengals (7-2) for the second time this season, the Steelers (6-3) find themselves in a hurry-up mode with seven games remaining. Because of tiebreakers, they're essentially down two games to Cincinnati in the AFC North, with little room for error and scant time for recovery.
It's almost as if an entire team will be in the two-minute drill for the rest of the season.
"I feel in order for us to (overtake the Bengals), we have to win out," safety Ryan Clark said. "Are we capable? Yes."
Pittsburgh's remaining schedule is relatively soft, with games against the Raiders (2-7) and Browns (1-7) upcoming in the next month, plus the Chiefs (2-7) on the road Sunday.
However, the Bengals play the same three teams, plus the Lions (1-8), although they face difficult games at Minnesota (8-1) and San Diego (6-3) on successive weekends next month.
The Steelers have taken on more difficult challenges - in 2005, they had to win their final four regular-season games plus four playoff games, none in Pittsburgh, to win the Super Bowl - and they did. Back in 1977, the Steelers started 4-4 before winning five of their last six to sneak into the playoffs when the Oilers eliminated the Bengals on the final day of the season.
"Hopefully, we needed to get knocked down a little bit," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "You know, we've lost games before and responded. We've got to do that this time."
The Steelers also were 6-3 last season; the difference is they led the division by one game over the Ravens, who were 5-4. The Bengals, at 1-8, were nowhere to be found.
Guess where the Bengals can be found now.
Cincinnati's 18-12 victory Sunday at Heinz Field should tell the Steelers this: They're going only as far as Ben Roethlisberger takes them, and their special teams need a major overhaul.
Not only was Roethlisberger under constant pressure while being sacked four times and getting multiple passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage, he was frequently off-target with his throws.
A pass that sailed through Santonio Holmes' hands in the end zone wasn't the quarterback's fault yet, inside the Bengals 20, Roethlisberger was 2 of 8 for 8 yards. He also threw an interception that led to a field goal, plus four consecutive incompletions after the Steelers got the ball at their own 33 with 1:50 remaining and a chance to win it.
"From the get-go, we weren't on," said Roethlisberger, whose 174 yards passing were his fewest since he had 131 against the Eagles early last season. "Offensively, we weren't good in the red zone, we weren't good in the run, we weren't good in the pass."
On kick coverage, they were downright bad, with rookie Bernard Scott returning only the third kickoff he's handled in the NFL 96 yards for the game's lone touchdown. Remarkably, it was the third kickoff return score the Steelers have permitted in four games, including one in each of their past three at home.
The Steelers have given up only 11 touchdowns on defense in nine games, yet opposing teams have seven return touchdowns against them (three kickoffs, two interceptions, two fumbles) - one each in their last seven games. Only the 1993 Steelers, who gave up eight return scores, permitted more.
After not yielding a single kickoff return touchdown last season, they've allowed the Browns' Joshua Cribbs (98 yards), the Vikings' Percy Harvin (88 yards) and Scott to go the distance against them since Oct. 18.
According to STATS LLC, the only other season since the 1970 NFL merger that the Steelers gave up three kickoff return touchdowns was 1986, when they went 6-10. In only one other season (1994) did they permit as many as two.
Former Steelers coach Chuck Noll didn't have a special teams coach during most of his tenure from 1969-91, and maybe there's a reason why.
None of Noll's eight teams that made the playoffs during the 1970s, when they won four Super Bowls and played in six AFC championship games, yielded a single kickoff return score during a regular season. The Steelers went from 1971-82 without giving up a single one.
Luckily for these Steelers, the NFL doesn't recognize a record for most kickoff return touchdowns permitted in a season.
"I always prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Much like the Steelers will be doing for the rest of the season.