Rovers suffered injury time heartache as Sunderland came from behind to claim the points at the Stadium of Light.
Simon Vukcevic stunned the home side when he headed Rovers in front on twenty minutes. The Montenegrin reacting quickest after Keiren Westwood could only parry Chris Samba's shot.
Moments later Chris Samba was adjudged to have fouled Westwood as Scott Dann headed home. Replays suggesting the Rovers captain had done little to impede the Sunderland stopper.
Gael Givet, Martin Olsson and Michel Salgado all limped off to make Rovers' task even harder, and despite fighting to a man to withstand the Sunderland pressure in the second half, David Vaughan pounced six minutes from time to draw the home side level.
Then after Mauro Formica was adjudged to have handled on the edge of his own area, Sebastian Larsson stepped up and curled the ball over the wall and in at the near post.
It was a devastating end for Rovers after they had fought saw hard throughout the match. The game ending on a sour note after Larsson's nasty elbow on Lowe resulted in the midfield being stretchered off.
Injuries meant Steve Kean made two changes to the side that defeated Swansea City the previous week.
Ruben Rochina missed the match due to having his wisdom teeth removed in the week, whilst a hamstring strain picked up in training sidelined Junior Hoilett.
That meant a second Premier League start for Simon Vukcevic following his impressive display as a first half substitute in the win over Swansea. Whilst Michel Salgado was back in the starting eleven after injury.
For his first game in charge Martin O'Neill made three changes from the side that lost at Wolverhampton Wanderers seven days ago. Titus Bramble, Connor Wickham and David Vaughan coming in for Lee Cattermole, Nicklas Bendtner and Ji Dong-won making way.
As expected Sunderland started in the ascendancy, forcing the pace in the early exchanges, Rovers having to defend stoutly.
Then there was early concern for Michel Salgado after the veteran Spaniard, operating in a right wing position, was down for a lengthy spell after a collision, but he was able to pick himself up.
Rovers striker Yakubu felt he should have 12th minute spotkick after he went down in the area under the challenge of Titus Bramble, but referee Peter Walton deemed it was a legal challenge. Five minutes later and Yakubu would play a role in Rovers taking the lead.
Coming out of the area to collect the ball, Yakubu was brought down from behind by Bramble and from the resulting free-kick Morten Gamst Pedersen picked out Chris Samba on the corner of the area, he sidestepped Wes Brown before lashing the ball hard and low towards goal, Sunderland stopper Keiren Westwood got his hands to the ball but could only push it as far as Simon Vukcevic who stooped to nod home his second goal in Rovers colours.
Ninety seconds later and the home side should have been level. The lively Stephane Sessegnon beat Gael Givet on the right to fire across the area, Jason Lowe inexplicably missed his kick presenting Kieran Richardson with a goalscoring opportunity but Paul Robinson was sharp to make a superb one-handed stop to hold onto the ball.
On 22 minutes Jason Lowe atoned from his earlier error, throwing himself in front of another Richardson goalbound strike to deflect the ball inches past the upright.
Rovers were forced into a change when Gael Givet limped off, resulting in an early return for Martin Olsson before Bramble and Yakubu tangled once again in the area, but as before referee Walton ruled in the home side's favour.
Sunderland came back with renewed pressure, Sessegnon firing wide after Dann and Samba won a host of headers before David Vaughan fizzed a shot over the bar from outside the area.
Four minutes before the break Rovers were unfortunate to see a second goal chalked off. Again it was a Morten Gamst Pedersen free-kick presenting the danger, his ball into the area saw Westwood crash to the turf before Scott Dann headed into the empty net, but Walton ruled that Samba had impeded the Sunderland goalkeeper when there appeared to be little that Samba had done.
The second half saw Rovers forced into their second defensive change of the match. Unfortunately Martin Olsson was unable to continue there it meant a second appearance for young full back Adam Henley.
Five minutes later and another change was enforced on Rovers. The rib injury sustained by Salgado in the first half was too much for the Spaniard to continue and his place was taken by Grant Hanley. Hanley moved to right back, Jason Lowe moving into midfield and Mauro Formica on the right.
Like the first half, Sunderland forced the pace after the restart, Sebastian Larsson was wide with a free-kick whilst a Richardson effort deflected off Pedersen and past the post.
The home side continued to press, Rovers pinned back defending the area as if their lives depended on it.
Only a superb one-handed save from Robinson prevented Richardson from levelling, the Sunderland man's shot deflecting off Pedersen goalwards but the Rovers number one readjusted to tip the ball away from goal.
Aside from a dipping drive from David Dunn Rovers had offered little as an attacking force and the urgency from the home side was raised further with a double change with 14 minutes to go as Ji Dong-won and James McClean were introduced.
McClean immediately made an impact, the winger's left-footed cross finding Larsson at the back but Robinson saved at his near post.
Grant Hanley threw himself to block a McClean effort, Yakubu likewise moments later, but with six minutes remaining the pressure eventually told.
Again it was a ball in from the left and as Adam Henley headed out of the area the ball sat up nicely for David Vaughan to strike the ball first time through the crowd of bodies, past the unsighted Paul Robinson and into the back of the net.
Sunderland laid siege, Samba immense in heading the ball away on numerous occasions but Rovers couldn't quell the pressure, and when Mauro Formica was adjudged to have handled on the edge of his own area. Sebastian Larsson stepped up, curled the ball over the wall and low into the corner of the net off the near post.
It was devastating for a patched up Rovers side that had worked so hard throughout the ninety minutes.
The match ended on an unsavoury note when goalscorer Larsson lead with an elbow to catch Jason Lowe full in the face, the England under 21 international having to leave the field on a stretcher following the Swede's nasty challenge.
SUNDERLAND: Westwood, Bardsley, Brown, Larsson, Wickham (sub Ji Dong-won 76 mins), Richardson, Colback (sub McClean 76 mins), Vaughan, O'Shea (c), Bramble, Sessegnon.
Subs not used: Carson (GK), Kilgallon, Meyler, Elmohamady, Noble.
ROVERS: Robinson, Lowe, Samba (c), Dann, Givet (sub Olsson 22 mins (sub Henley 46 mins)), Salgado (sub Hanley 51 mins), Dunn, Pedersen, Vukcevic, Formica, Yakubu.
Subs not used: Bunn (GK), Blackman, Goodwillie, Roberts.
Booked: O'Shea, Sessegnon (Sunderland), Salgado (Rovers).