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Defense digs in its heels

Goal-line stand keys scoreless second half

Email|Print| Text size + By Jennifer Toland
Worcester Telegram &Amp; Gazette / December 10, 2007

FOXBOROUGH - Six days after getting manhandled, bullied, and pushed around - that's how Rodney Harrison described what happened Monday night in a close victory over the Ravens in Baltimore - the Patriots' defense was determined not to let it happen again.

The unit, bolstered by a morale-building goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter, shut out the Steelers in the second half of yesterday's game at Gillette Stadium, watched as the New England offense did its thing, and when it was all over, seemed to take special pride in the 34-13 victory.

"We played Patriot football," Harrison said. "This is what I'm used to playing since I've been here - going out and not taking any crap, standing up to a big, physical team like Pittsburgh and doing what we do best and that's playing sound, fundamental football."

The Patriots have ranked at the bottom of the NFL in red-zone defense this season, but held the Steelers to an 0-for-3 day inside the 20.

"It's so big," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "We've been harping on that pretty hard. Teams get down there on us and it seems like they score. That's something we've always prided ourselves on - they can get down here, but once they're down here, let's buckle down."

With the Patriots up, 31-13, and the Steelers looking for a glimmer of hope, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker led a drive that got Pittsburgh to the New England 1-yard line 1 1/2 minutes into the fourth quarter.

On third-and-goal, Harrison broke up Roethlisberger's fade-pattern pass to Santonio Holmes in the left corner of the end zone. On fourth down, Harrison scooted to the other side of the field and combined with Richard Seymour to stuff wide receiver Hines Ward on a gadget-play sweep.

"I've seen that play over the course of my career maybe four or five times," Harrison said, "where the wide receiver lines up wide, he comes across in motion and they hand it off to him. So once [Ward] starting motioning, I figured they were going to try that play and I was able to come make that play along with the other guys blowing things up to get myself free to make that tackle."

In their first 12 games, the Patriots had given up 20 touchdowns on 28 trips into their red zone, a 71.4 percent conversion rate. The Steelers managed a 23-yard Jeff Reed field goal after getting to the Patriots' 5 on their first possession of the game. It was the first time this year the Patriots gave up points on an opponent's first drive.

Pittsburgh was 3 for 4 on third down during the 15-play drive, but was 0 for 4 the rest of the first half and finished 5 of 14. Five of the Steelers' 19 first downs came during that first drive.

Parker, the leader of Pittsburgh's third-ranked rushing offense, gained 124 yards - he's the third back to rush for more than 100 on the Patriots this season - but came nowhere close to dominating the game like Baltimore's Willis McGahee did last week. The Patriots, who showed a lot of nickel package, also kept Roethlisberger in check. He was 19 of 32 for 187 yards and a TD pass to Najeh Davenport. The Patriots sacked him three times. This, two weeks after surrendering a career-high 345 yards to Philadelphia backup A.J. Feeley.

"The theme of the week was to go back to being a smart and tough football team," Bruschi said. "We've been doing some things the past couple weeks that we wanted to fix. We talked about fixing these things with just being a smart team because that's what you have to be to beat a team like [the Steelers]."

Nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who dropped Roethlisberger for an 8-yard sack on the second play of the third quarter, was one of the Patriots' more animated defenders yesterday. He didn't like hearing people say the Patriots were "outphysicaled" in the Ravens game.

"I'm a defensive lineman," Wilfork said, "and that's my game. But whatever was said this week, we took it among ourselves to step up."

After the goal-line stop, Wilfork got up, ran down the field, did a little dance, and pointed toward the Steelers sideline.

"It might sound funny, but I think we played with more emotion [than we did against the Ravens]," Wilfork said. "I think we really did. I could see guys running to the football, guys having fun on the field. We always play good when we're having fun. I think last week we lacked that. We didn't lack it today."

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