KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein
SERIES: 22nd meeting. Steelers lead 13-8, but New
England has won four of last five, including two AFC Championship wins.
2005 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 12th (29th rush, 5th pass); defense 12th (12th rush, 14th pass). Steelers: offense 3rd (1st rush, 14th pass); defense 5th (17th rush, 3rd pass)
PREDICTION: Patriots 20-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: Two things are for certain: this matchup will be physical on both sides of the ball, and the Steelers will attempt to control the game by running it down the Patriots' throats. New England is still adjusting to having several new parts along its front seven, but the Patriots must contain RB Willie Parker in order to force the game into QB Ben Roethlisberger's hands -- which the Steelers' first two opponents were unable to accomplish. The Patriots' own running game has been miserable, allowing defenses to come after QB Tom Brady. Brady has seven touchdown passes in four career games against the Steelers, but he will have a difficult time taking advantage of mismatches downfield if Pittsburgh is able to stop RB Corey Dillon with its front seven.
FAST FACTS: Patriots: A win would give Brady his 50th in only his 65th career starts, which would be the second fastest ever to that mark (Ken Stabler, 62). Steelers: Roethlisberger's 106.3 passer rating through 15 career starts is the fourth-highest all-time. ... Have an 11-game regular-season home winning streak.
Randall Gay missed practice again Thursday and while questionable, isn't likely
to make it back for the Steelers game. Duane Starks will start in his place opposite
--WR Bethel Johnson also missed some practice time Thursday, but he has a chance to play. The Patriots could certainly use him in the kickoff return game beside the explosive Ellis Hobbs, but since he isn't much of kick coverage man, he may not be active even if he's healthy. The Pats have gone with four receivers in each of the last two games - Deion Branch, David Givens, Troy Brown and Tim Dwight.
--CB Chad Scott hopes to play against his former team, the Steelers, a team that is accustomed to seeing their former cornerback on the injury report. Scott missed the last week's game with a shoulder injury, but claims to feel better. He missed some practice time again on Thursday.
--G Stephen Neal's availability remains a question mark. Neal injured his back against Carolina and left the game. He also missed practice time on Wednesday and Thursday. If he can't go, Russ Hochstein will start at right guard. Hochstein had two false start penalties last week.
--LB Mike Vrabel, another former Steeler, was asked in a conference call with the Pittsburgh media how the defending champions have played through two games. "I think we've played very average. When you say that we're an average team, I don't think that's what our capabilities are. I think we certainly played average; that's a true assessment of where we are at this point in the season."
Bill Cowher doesn't expect an average team Sunday at Heinz Field. He's seen the Patriots enough to know that his club better be prepared. "When you look at the New England Patriots, they know what it's like to come back and there's no panic up there," Cowher said. "They have great veteran leadership, good football players, and the best coach in the game today. When you look at what took place last week, it was a tough game and that's a pretty good football team that they played as well. They're not going to be intimidated coming into us. They have come in here and won more than once. We're just going to have to be on top of our game. We know that we're going to get a team that is going to bounce back. It will be a battle for us. It's a big challenge for us and it's a chance to see where we stand. I think there is a long way to go for both teams and it's a good barometer for us when you have the chance to play the best team in the National Football League."
--DE Jarvis Green is questionable with a shoulder injury and missed some practice time Thursday, but he's expected to play against the Steelers.
--RB Jerome Bettis will not play in his first game until at least Oct. 10 in San Diego. The Steelers have off next week. Bettis pulled a calf muscle in the third preseason game.
--WR Cedrick Wilson plays split end when the Steelers go to three wides, with Antwaan Randle El moving into the slot. Although Randle El starts, Wilson played a lot in two-wide with Hines Ward last Sunday.
--TE Heath Miller will soon surpass Jerame Tuman for the No. 1 job at the position. Both started the first two games when they opened with two tight ends.
--RB Willie Parker leads the AFC in rushing with 272 yards but all the action in his first season has caused him to lose 10 pounds since training camp opened.
--LB Joey Porter feasted on Patriots T Matt Light last Oct. 31 in Pittsburgh. Porter had three sacks and forced a Tom Brady fumble that set up the Steelers' second TD in a 34-20 victory.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The Steelers defense attack in different ways with a talented front seven that utilizes Dick LeBeau's zone blitzes so well that it puts stress on the pass protection and the quarterback to make quick, decisive reads and accurate throws while sliding in the pocket away from the rush and with bodies coming at him from all directions.
But it's more than the front seven that can hound a quarterback. The Pittsburgh defense sacked Texans quarterback David Carr eight times last week and the team's sack leader doesn't play among its powerful, aggressive front seven. Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu leads the team in sacks and will cause headaches for the Patriots' protection.
"If you don't know where he is, he'll kill you," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said about Polamalu. "We know that. He had three sacks last week. He had over 100 tackles last year. He's all over the field. He's fast and runs down a lot of plays."
Polamalu is one of those defensive backs who do it all. He can rush, cover, play run support and make big plays. Belichick is certainly game-planning for the former USC star.
"I thought that play he made on a reverse against us on the first play of the January (playoff) game was just an amazing play where he came out of nowhere and tracked (Deion) Branch down," Belichick recalled. "He's got a lot of speed; he's got a great motor. He's very aggressive and around the ball a lot. You make a mistake around him and he'll intercept it just like he did against Washington; he'll pick it off and run it back for a touchdown or scoop it up and run it back. He's a big factor in their game plan, there's no question."
Steelers coach Bill Cowher didn't downplay the impact Polamalu can have on a game.
"Troy has developed into one of the top safeties in the league because of the skills he has," Cowher said. "He's a great athlete but he's also a great student of the game. I think he has a great feel for the game. He's just one of the guys who is fun to be around and he certainly gives you a lot of flexibility when you have a guy that possess the type of athletic skills that he has. At the same time, he has a great feel for the game. It's great to have him and without a doubt he's one of the leaders of our defense."
The Patriots have allowed just two sacks in two games, but quarterback Tom Brady has been under pressure as teams have blitzed him from every angle and area of the field. He's handled it fairly well and avoided critical mistakes, with the exception of one interception that came on a play on which he wasn't under pressure. He'll have to handle it well this week as well, and he'll also have to find Polamalu on every snap.
Ben Roethlisberger may be 15-0 in the regular season, but he's 16-1 overall and that one loss came to the New England Patriots three games ago in the AFC championship in Pittsburgh.
The Patriots turned the tables on Big Ben that day. They intercepted him three times. Safety Rodney Harrison, took one of the interceptions all the way home from 87 yards for a touchdown. It's no wonder, then, that Roethlisberger will be looking for Harrison on Sunday.
"He's a safety that comes down and likes to hit people," Roethlisberger said. "He's a guy we have to really locate and keep an eye on because he's going to give a lot of things away, hopefully."
The Steelers safeties are the ones who want to turn the corner in this game. Tom Brady went after them in the AFC championship game and struck big on two occasions to Deion Branch, who caught a 60-yard touchdown pass and set up another with a deep ball.
"Being a cornerback or safety, you have to expect the deep ball a couple times in the game," cornerback Ike Taylor said.
Brady set up both passes to Branch using play-action fakes to Corey Dillon. Safeties Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu were late, one on each pass, from a Cover-2 zone.
"They caught me on one of them and Troy on one of them," Hope said. "They made great plays, great passes. The time I got beat I should have taken a better angle. It's not like we were nosey or in the backfield or nothing. They have a great team and they made a great play."
They Steelers have watched plenty of tape from that game and hope to avoid falling for the same trick Sunday.
"You have to be disciplined, you have to be patient and make sure you're seeing what your seeing and not guessing," said secondary coach Darren Perry. "I think we just got a little antsy, saw something we probably didn't see and reacted to it, which is going to happen sometimes."
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