Steelers' secondary hoping to hold its ground against Patriots
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Just as they were a year ago when preparing to play a late-season game in New England, the Steelers will face the Patriots with the NFL's No. 1-ranked secondary that has allowed only one pass longer than 40 yards.
And, just like a year ago, they will be facing a Patriots quarterback who is attacking opposing secondaries and putting up big numbers.
This time, though, they are hoping for a different outcome. And not just on the scoreboard. This time, they are hoping their secondary performs as it has for most of this season, particularly in the past five games when it has shut down some of the league's top receivers.
Just don't expect anyone to guarantee a victory.
"Our secondary doesn't get the credit it deserves," said cornerback Ike Taylor. "It's usually all about our linebackers. That's two years in a row we've been No. 1 and we still don't get the credit."
Indeed, the Steelers were saying much the same thing last year when they ranked No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense after 12 games. At the time, they had allowed just one pass play longer than 40 yards -- a 56-yarder against the New York Jets -- and had gone five games in a row without allowing a 200-yard passer.
Then they went to New England, and their impenetrable pass defense started cracking like a soft-shelled crab.
Tom Brady passed for 399 yards and threw four touchdowns, including a 63-yarder to Randy Moss and a 56-yarder to Jabbar Gaffney, in New England's 34-13 victory. On both plays, Brady used trickery to suck in free safety Anthony Smith, whose most egregious mistake of the week was predicting a Steelers victory.
The following week, the Steelers allowed another long pass play -- a 55-yarder to Jacksonville's Dennis Northcutt -- and the collapse was on.
"That's how it goes," said cornerback Deshea Townsend. "You get too much credit when you win and blame when you lose. It's our job to go out there and not let big plays happen."
The setting will not be much different Sunday when the Steelers (8-3) play the Patriots (7-4) in Foxborough, Mass.
The Steelers enter the game with the defensive hat trick, ranking No. 1 in the league in total defense, rush defense and pass defense. They lead the league in fewest passing yards per game (168.8) and per attempt (5.6) and have allowed only five quarterbacks to pass for more than 200 yards, none more than 240.
What's more, they are the only team in the league to allow just one pass play longer than 40 yards, and even that was a fluke -- a 65-yard touchdown by Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne on a play in which the ball deflected off Taylor's hands. They have also allowed the fewest passes of 20 yards or longer (15).
All this, and they have played the past two games without two of their top three cornerbacks, Townsend (hamstring) and Bryant McFadden (broken forearm).
"If you look at the ranked teams, you might have one standout safety or one standout corner," Taylor said. "We got a standout safety, that's Troy [Polamalu]. But, at the same time, we got a lot of solid guys in the secondary, too."
The biggest difference for the Steelers is that Ryan Clark, not Smith, will be the free safety against the Patriots.
The only difference for the Patriots will be the jersey number of their quarterback.
Otherwise, Matt Cassel has looked a lot like Brady, throwing for 400 or more yards and three touchdowns in each of the past two games. His top two receivers -- Wes Welker (80 catches) and Randy Moss (54) -- rank Nos. 2 and 15, respectively, in the NFL. Moss had three touchdown catches in the Patriots' 48-28 victory Sunday in Miami.
"As a secondary, we understand that if we had a bad game, nine times out of 10 we're going to lose," Taylor said.
They are hoping that does not happen against the Patriots. Again.
First Published November 25, 2008 12:00 am