Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
VENUE: Heinz Field
SURFACE: Natural Grass
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
PREDICTION: Patriots 34-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots won, 39-26, in Pittsburgh on Nov. 14 last season with QB Tom Brady throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns.
Streaking: New England has 30-plus points in 13 of its past 14 games.
Truth in numbers: The Steelers are ranked No. 3 in overall defense, but are allowing 4.5 yards per carry. Brady is 6-1 in his career against Pittsburgh with 14 touchdown passes. He should get RB Kevin Faulk back and if the Patriots can run the ball effectively and incorporate their backs into passing game, the Steelers don't match up well downfield. TE Rob Gronkowski had three touchdowns in last year's meeting, and WR Wes Welker won't be shadowed by CB Ike Taylor, who isn't comfortable in the slot.
The Steelers are confident they can move the ball through the air on the Patriots, who allow a league-high 322.2 passing yards per game - 33.3 more than anyone else. New England has just 10 sacks, making it difficult to fully exploit Pittsburgh's offensive line issues. But the Steelers might also look to control the clock more through shorter passes to help keep their own defense fresh.
FAST FACTS: The Patriots won, 39-26, in Pittsburgh on Nov. 14 last season with QB Tom Brady throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns.
Streaking: New England has 30-plus points in 13 of its past 14 games. ... Brady and Bill Belichick are tied with Dan Marino and Don Shula of Miami for the most wins (116) by a quarterback-head coach duo. ... The Steelers have a four-game home winning streak. ... Pittsburgh's defense has a league-low three sacks.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Several weeks ago, Patriots defensive coordinator Pepper Johnson made reference to "teaching old dogs new tricks" when discussing the maturation process of New England's defense.
Suffice to say, these dogs have learned a thing or two in recent weeks. The Patriots' performance against Dallas two weeks ago is proof; New England held a high-powered offense in check, forced turnovers, and came through with a key three-and-out at the game's most critical point late in the fourth quarter.
"I think we've gotten better," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "That's what you want to do as a team; you want to be able to each week move forward and be able to do keep doing the positive stuff and (with) the negative
stuff, if it's something you like and you didn't get a good look at it, you try to build on that.
"I think everything is moving forward. We're in the middle of the season and things we do well, we have to continue to do well. Things we don't do so well but can help us, we need to find a way to make those things happen for us. We're definitely at a situation where we're still building. Everything's not perfect but it's moving along pretty good."
Things figure to get better, too, with Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace back practicing. The two have missed significant time due to injuries, but their potential returns add youth, speed and versatility to the defensive line, which should only improve the pass rush.
"Only time will tell," Wilfork said. "I don't what the plan is with them, but only time will tell. If their number is called, they have to be ready to answer the bell. I just don't know where we stand with that. That's probably a question better suited for Bill (Belichick). Whoever Bill puts us out there with, we have confidence in them. That's how it's going to be. We can't do anything about that."
A lot of new faces have been added to this defense, and the scheme has switched from 3-4 to 4-3 at various times, but Wilfork noted that his role hasn't changed much, nor does he expect too many changes moving forward -- unless that "change" is constant improvement.
"We're all coming in and learning new schemes with the 4-3 and going from (3-4 to 4-3) to whatever we may be going," he said. "It hasn't changed much. It's just all of us learning something new.
"These guys have been around for a long time, so to be able to teach them a scheme that's kind of different, you have to knock the rust off. I think it was a little different for all of us. Now I think we're actually getting the hang of it. We're starting to play better together with one another. We're starting to make the plays that we need to make on defense. Everything is moving forward."
Hines Ward, who has slipped to No. 4 in yards on Pittsburgh's otherwise young group of receivers, has a sprained ankle and may not play Sunday when the New England Patriots come to Heinz Field.
It would be the second game against the Patriots in two years in which Ward would not be a factor. Last November, Ward was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with a concussion. He did not catch a pass, ending the NFL's third-longest streak of catching a pass in 186 consecutive games.
The Steelers went on to lose that game to New England 39-26 but believe they are much better suited to remain productive without Ward on offense this season than they were last.
Although Ward starts, his 258 yards fall behind those of third-year player Mike Wallace, second-year Antonio Brown's 364 and tight end Heath Miller's 276. Even second-year Emmanuel Sanders, with 173, has as many touchdowns as Ward with two.
"I think this year everybody is better prepared because we're older and we played more plays than last year," said Wallace, in his third season. "We're more comfortable, we're smarter players."
Bruce Arians, Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, said Ward's duties likely would be split between Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, the veteran Jets receiver signed by the Steelers during training camp.
"If he's not there, we've got guys who are more than capable," Arians said.
--LB Dane Fletcher missed practice again with a thumb injury and could be limited in Sunday's game. Chances are he'll suit up, but don't expect him to get too much playing time.
--CB Ras-I Dowling missed practice Thursday due to a hip injury and will likely be a game-time decision Sunday. Dowling is a key part of the team's nickel package on third down.
--LB Jerod Mayo is still limited in practice and will likely miss another week before returning to the lineup unless something drastic changes Friday.
--RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis is limited with a toe injury, but will likely be available Sunday. Green-Ellis has been fairly durable over the past two years.
--OL Sebastian Vollmer is also limited due to a back injury, which has forced him to miss most of the season. Barring any major improvement, Vollmer will likely have to wait another week until he plays.
--QB Ben Roethlisberger has a 21-7 record in the month of October. Roethlisberger is third in the AFC with a 95.3 passer rating and second with 1,937 yards.
--LB James Farrior went through another limited practice on Thursday, and if he has trouble going Sunday, Larry Foote would replace him in the dime defense. In the base 3-4, Stevenson Sylvester would play inside linebacker.
--RB Rashard Mendenhall has gotten fewer carries, fewer yards, fewer touchdowns and has a lower average per carry. He ran for 1,273 yards on 324 carries last season for 13 touchdowns and a 3.9-yard average. He has only 351 yards, three touchdowns and a 3.7-yard average on 94 carries this season.
--RB Isaac Redman has nine receptions for 42 yards and that leads all Steelers running backs, who have caught just 20 of the team's 149 receptions.
--DE Brett Keisel leads the team with 16 quarterback hurries to go with his two sacks and three pass deflections. He missed two games with a knee injury.
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