For the Patriots, guard Stephen Neal, RB Fred Taylor and defensive backups Jarrad Page and Myron Pryor have been ruled out. Listed as questionable are: S Patrick Chung (knee) and DE Mike Wright (groin).
The Patriots this week have replaced PK Steve Gostkowski with former Bengals PK Shayne Graham. Gostkowski was put on IR with a thigh injury. The last time Graham was in Heinz Field, he missed a 51-yarder but made his next four kicks in an 18-12 Bengals win.
Last week the Cleveland Browns rushed for 230 yards against the Patriots but inside linebacker Brandon Spikes made a valiant effort to slow the Browns. The rookie from Florida had his fourth 10-tackle game and now has 56 tackles at the halfway point of the season.
Spikes was a three-year starter and former captain for the Gators, who won the national championship his junior year. At 6-3, 250, Spikes had NFL size, but his speed – 5.0 combine 40 – doomed him to the bottom of the second round of the draft, and it looks like the Patriots got a steal.
"He's playing really good, same as college. He flies around," said his college teammate, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. "All that 40 stuff doesn't matter when you're out there on the field. He's running down on kickoffs. He can't be that slow."
Pouncey said he's also looking forward to seeing his close friend and old roommate, Patriots tight end Aaron "Chico" Hernandez, who, with 34 catches for 436 yards, is on pace to break Patriots rookie records for a tight end held by Greg Baty (37 catches, 1986) and Russ Francis (636 yards, 1975).
The Patriots have a third rookie starter from Florida in DE/OLB Jermaine Cunningham, who has 26 tackles, a sack, and two forced fumbles.
"We had a real good relationship with New England's coach, [Bill] Belichick," Pouncey said. "He and coach [Urban] Meyer are close friends. I guess he knew the kind of players we had and the kind of respect we had for him."
The Patriots also had their eyes on Pouncey and brought him in for a pre-draft visit.
"I thought it was going to happen," Pouncey said.
COACH ON QB, AGAIN
A reporter from New England had a somewhat humorous exchange with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin this week. It started with a question local reporters here almost every week.
Reporter: "What's the difference in Ben Roethlisberger on and off the field since he's returned?"
MT: "How you doing?"
Reporter: "Good. How are you?"
MT: "Anybody want to answer that?"
Reporter: "You've probably heard that question a hundred times."
MT: "A hundred and one. Um, I think he's appreciative of the mundane, the daily drudgery that goes with playing. I think it's natural that he's probably more appreciative of it now. That's a natural response when something's taken away from you. Other than that he's Ben."
WRECKING BALL THAT COULD
Last week Sanders put his helmet into Bernard Scott's midsection and forced a fumble on the opening kickoff. Soon thereafter, Sanders threw a key downfield block to pad Rashard Mendenhall's 20-yard run and set up a Jeff Reed field goal.
Sanders is clearly more physical than his size and position would indicate.
"I like running down and hitting. It's just fun," he said. "You run down there full speed and get an opportunity to hit and cause a fumble? I haven't done that since high school."
So far, the return specialist/slot receiver has 6 special teams tackles in the 5 games he's been active.
"I've always been this physical," he said. "That's the Steelers way and that fits right into my game. I love knocking people down."
MORE KICK COVERAGE
Another rookie, linebacker Jason Worilds, leads the Steelers with 10 special teams tackles after the coaches counted four last week in Cincinnati.
"Yes, he's doing very well. He has a great future," said the Steelers' paternalistic special teams coach Al Everest.
Everest was walking with Worilds down the hall when he was asked the question. Tomlin came around the corner just in time to hear Everest's comment and growled, "He ain't done nothing yet."
"I know coach," said Everest.
In limited time with the defense in his first half-season in the league, Worilds has 1 sack and 4 quarterback pressures. He was robbed of a sack/forced fumble a few weeks ago when the last Dolphins play was ruled an intercepted pass by Harrison. But the second-round pick doesn't care about the lost stats.
"We won," Worilds said. "A sack would've been good maybe at the end of my career if I needed one, but we won. That's all that matters to me."
TROY ON NEW PATRIOTS
Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu has played the Patriots when Tom Brady's thrown 43 and 41 passes, and Polmalu has played them when Brady's thrown only 21 passes. How would Polamalu assess the difference in the Patriots' offense over the years?
"They're more Brady-reliant now," Polamalu said. "Then they were very balanced. Teams they thought were weak against the run, they'd try to attack them with their run offense. But now it's just all about spreading the offense and letting Tom digest the defense and pick and choose where he wants to attack."
Would Polamalu be surprised by a 50-pass game from Brady tonight?
"Not at all," he said. "With the way our run defense has been playing, it would be smart."