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Patriots notebook

Steeler defense is No. 1 issue

League's top unit poses a challenge

James Harrison (92) and the Steelers haven't allowed an opponent to gain more than 300 yards of offense this season. James Harrison (92) and the Steelers haven't allowed an opponent to gain more than 300 yards of offense this season. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / November 26, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Having scored 82 points in the last two games and rung up 500 yards in back-to-back contests for the first time in franchise history, the Patriots' offense has been clicking on many cylinders.

Next up: the NFL's No. 1 defense.

Sunday's contest between the high-flying Patriots and stingy Steelers pits two units performing at top levels, as Pittsburgh's defense has allowed the fewest yards and fewest points in the league.

The Steelers also have the league's best red zone defense, surrendering just 11 touchdowns in 32 trips. Furthermore, they allow the fewest rushing yards per carry (2.9) and the fewest passing yards per game (168.8), and their 37 sacks rank second in the NFL.

"It is a huge challenge," said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "Obviously, there aren't a lot of weaknesses. There really aren't any."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick pointed out yesterday that no team has gained more than 300 yards against the Steelers and that about half of the possessions against them are three-and-outs. Belichick called the Steelers "solid across the board" and noted that they are "no one-man band."

One thing offensive players can expect to hear from coaches is reducing the margin for error.

"They are very sound in what they do, so you have to be just as sound offensively when you play against them or else you end up making mistakes," McDaniels said. "They are capitalizing on a lot of those. You have to avoid those situations. You have to make the most of your opportunities when you get them."

Well-rested opponents

In a scheduling quirk, the Patriots' next three opponents (Steelers, Seahawks, Raiders) will all have three extra days of preparation because they will have played on Thursday night the prior week.

Belichick was asked if he felt having the extra time was beneficial.

"I think for most teams with the coaching staff, it is an advantage because you have a little more time to not only look at the most recent games that you have broken down, but the whole season and study with a little more detail," he said. "For the players - now that we are into the season 10, 11, 12 games - I think most teams would use the time to give them a couple extra days to heal up their bumps and bruises."

The Patriots were in that situation last week after facing the Jets on Thursday, Nov. 13; they had extra time to prepare for Sunday's win over the Dolphins.

"Even though we had extra time and we had more meeting time, we didn't do a whole lot more on the field than we would in a normal Sunday-to-Sunday week," Belichick said. "I think from some of the other coaches I have talked to in the league, that is closer to the norm."

Say it again

Steelers safety Anthony Smith drew the ire of Belichick and New England players last year when he said prior to a Dec. 9 game at Foxborough: "Yeah, I can guarantee a win - as long as we come out and do what we got to do." The Patriots won, 34-13, using Smith's words as motivation and targeting him on the field and in the postgame interview room. Smith, now a backup, was asked his thoughts about this Sunday's game and told the Indiana Gazette: "We're the No. 1 defense. If we play like we've been playing, and our offense comes around and has a good game, and we're clicking on all cylinders, we're going to win the game." Time will tell whether those words wind up on the Patriots' bulletin board.

Shedding no light

Belichick said he had nothing to add on any potential fallout from Matt Light's on-field fight with Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder Sunday. The NFL made no announcement about any disciplinary action on the matter yesterday . . . Belichick said the team's schedule won't change much this week, although they may do a bit more today so players can leave the stadium earlier on Thanksgiving. "I think if we just push things up a little, everyone will have time to have a good day with their families, which is important," he said . . . Steelers running back Willie Parker is questionable for Sunday with knee inflammation, while starting defensive end Brett Keisel is out with a sprained medial collateral ligament. Coach Mike Tomlin is not sure whether cornerbacks Deshea Townsend (hamstring) and Bryant McFadden (forearm) and left tackle Marvel Smith (back) will play.

Gobbling up wins

Since 2001, the Patriots are 48-9 in games played on or after Thanksgiving (including playoffs), the best mark in the NFL . . . Patriots players in the top five at their positions in fan voting for the Pro Bowl: receiver Randy Moss (fourth), guard Logan Mankins (fifth), Light (third), inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi (fourth) and Jerod Mayo (fifth), and special teamer Larry Izzo (third) . . . Matt Cassel was nominated as a finalist for the FedEx Air NFL Player of the Week, with fans voting for the winner on NFL.com.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report

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