Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

Vince Wilfork

The Patriots may have the worst statistical defense in the league, but that may just have been the fallout from a short offseason. New England's D is improving each week, and could surprise some teams down the line.

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."

Bigger Rivalry Than New York
  --Games against the Jets tend to get the most attention in Foxboro, but this weekend's showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers could be even more important in the long run.

   Forget for a second that the Patriots might need this win for tiebreaker purposes in the AFC playoff picture. Facing Pittsburgh has always been a measuring-stick game of sorts, and this year is no exception.

   Once again, the Steelers rank among the league leaders in defense while the Patriots are one of the league's top offenses. This will be another test for Tom Brady, who showed he can still rise to the occasion when needed most following his fourth-quarter comeback two weeks ago against Dallas.

   The Patriots have dominated Pittsburgh when it counts, winning three of four in the playoffs, and they've won seven of the last nine overall, including last year's Sunday night victory.

   "They've played us pretty good a few times, too," Brady said. "We've had our moments and they've had their moments. I think we realize the kind of challenge that it is. We put a lot of time into the preparation.

   "We put a lot of effort into understanding what we're trying to accomplish from a game plan standpoint. And we've executed well."

   After facing Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis three weeks ago, Brady must now deal with Patriots safety Troy Polamalu.

   "They're very different players," Brady said. "Troy is a phenomenal player. I watched a bunch of his highlights with coach Belichick yesterday in our film study. He's as good as he's ever been. He flies around the field. He's incredibly fast and instinctive.

   "He covers a lot of ground out there. You have to keep your eyes on him on every play. I'd say he's more comparable to Ed Reed than Revis. Revis, they put him on a receiver and he takes him out of the game and he does a hell of job of doing that. ... (Troy) makes plays that very few guys in the league can make."

   The winner of Sunday's game will have the upper hand in the playoff seeding, which could make a difference in deciding who hosts a potential playoff showdown in January. The tasks never get easier for New England; each week is a measuring-stick game.

   SERIES HISTORY: 22nd regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 13-8. The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series, yet the Patriots hold a 3-1 edge in postseason matchups. The Patriots have won seven of the last 10 games against Pittsburgh, including a win last season. 

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