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Patriots defense must be on guard

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / October 30, 2011

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PITTSBURGH - The revolving group of Patriots cornerbacks has been tested and tested and tested again the last two seasons.

Yet the mix still doesn’t seem to be just right for coach Bill Belichick, as the team released veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden Friday. Without Bodden, the only two corners remaining from the 2010 season are Devin McCourty, who is in his second season, and Kyle Arrington, who began the 2010 season primarily as a special teams contributor.

Now the Patriots defense enters today’s game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh with one less veteran to go up against a tough offense that includes a bruising quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and speedy receivers such as Mike Wallace.

“It’s not just one guy, their whole receiving corps is tough,’’ said McCourty. “And Roethlisberger has the ability to throw the ball deep and he doesn’t really out-throw any of those guys, and as fast they are, that’s kind of tough.

“We’ll really have our hands full.’’

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now a CBS analyst, said the challenge for the Patriots defense throughout the season has been trying to pressure without much of a pass rush.

Few would disagree, but Cowher said the Patriots are doing their best to create pressure in ways that may not show up on the stat sheet.

“I think Bill has done a great job this year of trying to manufacture pressure,’’ Cowher said. “There’s no question that there’s not one player that they have that you really fear as a pass rusher. So that puts a lot of pressure on your secondary and your linebackers, your coordinator and the signal callers to try and manufacture pressure but at the same time not expose your secondary to have to cover for long periods of time.

“That’s a work-in-progress-type of thing. They’ve done a good job of managing that and just doing what they have to do in each game.’’

The Steelers pose a number of challenges. They have a top-10 offense, including a passing game that ranks ninth overall with an average of 265.4 yards a game. And they are rushing for 117.9 yards a game (14th overall).

When so much about the Steelers stays the same year after year, embracing the passing game has created a more balanced attack that defenses have to respect.

One year after the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004, Cowher - who coached them from 1992-2006 - said it was evident the team needed to surround its quarterback with talent. In back-to-back years, the Steelers dedicated their first-round picks to tight end Heath Miller (2005) and wide receiver Santonio Holmes (2006).

This season, the Steelers have a respected group of receivers led by Wallace, who has 36 receptions for 730 yards and five touchdowns. Veteran Hines Ward is questionable for today’s game with an ankle injury but has 26 catches for 258 yards.

“When you have a guy that is that talented, you have to provide him with weapons,’’ Cowher said of Roethlisberger. “I think what they’ve done now is maybe come up with one of the best group of receivers that the Pittsburgh Steelers have ever really accumulated.’’

Their balance allows the Steelers to create big plays off of play-action. With backs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, defenses have to respect the run.

As NFL teams fell in love with the passing game, others had to keep up, including the Steelers.

“I think it’s the evolution of the NFL and of offenses,’’ Roethlisberger said. “We may be a little bit more behind the times than most teams, but when you’ve got weapons on the outside, you’ve got to utilize them.

“We still feel like we have some great abilities to run the ball, and we have to do that, and we do do that. As the league evolves and you’ve got to keep up with teams like New England scoring 60 points a game, it’s part of the evolution.’’

Wallace, who is in his third NFL season, is averaging 20.3 yards a catch and is more than capable of making a dynamic play.

McCourty rates Wallace as probably the fastest receiver the Patriots have faced to this point, and with an arm like Roethlisberger’s, there is no end to the possibility for trouble.

“I know there are a couple of guys in this league, it would be interesting to see them line up and race,’’ said McCourty, “but when you watch on film, [Wallace] is definitely, probably the fastest guy.’’

It’s not just Wallace. If Ward is unable to play today, the Steelers will look to Emmanuel Sanders or Jerricho Cotchery, according to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

“It’s one position we are very deep at,’’ Arians said. “I feel very comfortable with Jerricho in [Ward’s] spot. He and Emmanuel are splitting it.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed that Hines will be ready to go, because he’s the heartbeat. We don’t want to miss anybody. If he’s not there, we’ve got enough guys that are more than capable.’’

Even though the Patriots have won four of the last six regular-season matchups with Pittsburgh, Belichick said his team doesn’t have a choice but to be prepared for everything.

“I think Roethlisberger and the offense have evolved over the last five, six years,’’ Belichick said. “The running game is still . . . there’s a lot of carryover from year to year, and regardless of what the numbers are, they can definitely run it and they will run it and they can throw it and they will throw it.

“If something is going good for a game, they might stick with it. If they need to do something else, they’re perfectly capable of doing it.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @monwalker.

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