Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth got the start Monday night against Pittsburgh for his first live action since the Wild Card loss to Houston in January, and he said the moment got to him.
“I’ll admit that right before kickoff I was emotional,” said Whitworth, who had offseason surgery on his left knee and then injured his right knee during training camp, forcing him to miss all four preseason games and the opener last week in Chicago.
“It’s been a tough road,” he added. “There’s been a lot of stuff going on, and it’s been like one thing after another. I felt like I’d never get on the field. It meant a lot to me to be out on the field and able to go.”
Those emotions eventually dissipated and were replaced with others late in the 20-10 win when the Steelers grew frustrated and things got chippy with Whitworth getting into a couple of scrums with Troy Polamalu.
“It’s AFC North football, man,” Whitworth said. “It’s physical. It’s nasty. They’ve got guys that played that way all day, and you’ve got to match it.”
While walking to the sideline after mixing it up with Polamalu, Whitworth gestured to the crowd, first with arms waved in triumph and later with a hand cupping his ear to egg on more noise.
“I love it. I go back to ’08 (against the) Jacksonville Jaguars with me and (John) Henderson going at it and getting ejected and them chanting my name as I walked off the field,” he said. “That’s where it started. They got behind me. We were 0-8 at the time, and since that day I’ve said to myself that I’ll defend this offense and I’ll defend the Bengals’ stadium. It’s something I have a lot of pride in.”
First-year linebacker and Cincinnati native J.K. Schaffer found out a few hours before the game he was being promoted from the practice squad and would be making his NFL debut on national television against the Bengals’ biggest rival.
“To get that call was incredible,” Schaffer said. “It’s like a dream. You couldn’t draw it up any better.”
Schaffer played on kickoff coverage and return and punt coverage and return units, although he didn’t finish with any tackles.
“It was hard at first,” he said. “I had so much adrenaline going, I didn’t have my mind completely straight. As the game went on I felt like I came into a little more control of myself, and now I’m going to have a lot more composure in other games.”
The late notice left him scrambling to find more tickets for his family.
“Only a couple of my family members were planning on coming because they have to work tomorrow and I wasn’t supposed to play originally,” he said. “At the last second I was able to come up with some extra tickets to make sure my mom and sister and my grandparents got to come.”
Miles took the spot of fourth-year safety Jeromy Miles, whom the club waived. Miles had played in 41 consecutive games but was listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury he suffered early in the season opener at Chicago last week.
He was second on the team in special teams tackles last year and was the team leader in that category in 2011.
The Bengals not only avoided the big penalties that cost them so much in the season-opening loss at Chicago, they benefitted from Pittsburgh committing them Monday night.
Although one of them was as questionable as it was costly for the Steelers.
With the score tied 10-10 early in the third quarter, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown with a 33-yard pass on third and 10, but it was wiped out by a tripping penalty against Marcus Gilbert.
Instead of first and 10 at the Cincinnati 30, the Steelers were facing third and 20 at their own 27. After Geno Atkins sacked Roethlisberger for an 11-yard loss, it was fourth and 31 at the 16.
“That’s a big play,” Roethlisberger said of the penalty. “We’ve got all the momentum in the world going there and next thing you know you’re backed up.”
The other big penalty, which could have more costly than it ended up, was an offside call against LaMarr Woodley that negated a third-down stop and gave the Bengals a first down at the Pittsburgh 8. The Steelers eventually held and forced a Mike Nugent 25-yard field goal that made it a two-score game at 20-10 with 7:51 left to play.
While the Bengals avoided the personal foul penalties that derailed them in Chicago, they still drew nine flags for 84 yards. That gives them 17 for 168 yards in two games, making them one of the most penalized teams in the league.
“We’ve got to keep trying to minimize our errors,” head coach Marvin Lewis said. “We had some careless penalties, particularly in the kicking game, that we’ve got to eliminate because it’s setting us back.”