Steeling themselves for a battle
After a poor showing in the regular-season opener against their rivals, the Ravens, the Steelers’ defense was written off as suddenly too old.
But the Steelers have won three straight entering Sunday’s game with the Patriots, and have the top-rated passing defense and second-rated defense overall in the NFL. Stories of the defense’s demise were premature, apparently.
“I have no idea where anyone would get that impression,’’ Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said yesterday via conference call. “I really believe this is a tough defense, a smart defense, a really well-coached defense.’’
At the heart of the unit is safety Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu has started all seven of the 5-2 Steelers’ games, though he was knocked out of the game against Jacksonville two weeks ago with a concussion (he called his wife from the sideline, for which the league fined him a whopping $10,000, more than many players get for player-safety infractions).
He has 43 tackles, a sack, and six pass-breakups this season, and is someone the Patriots will have to be aware of at all times.
“He’s a very instinctive player,’’ O’Brien said. “He’s a guy that can really disrupt the game if you don’t have knowledge of where he is on every play.
“I think he’s playing very fast and very well with his instincts and his overall experience playing in that system. He’s one of many defenders on that defense that is going to be tough to go against. He’s at the head of the class.’’
Polamalu’s calling card is that he is so versatile. He’s strong in pass defense, in the run game, and he also can get after the quarterback; he’s been credited with three QB hits and three pressures to go with his sack.
“He’s one of the top defensive players in the league,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s a dynamic player that can affect any play that you run - run or pass, inside, outside, short, deep. He’s a tremendous football player, great competitor.
“He’s made a ton of plays this year, made them last year; he makes a lot of them.’’
Though Polamalu missed two games last year because of an Achilles’ injury – which hampered him in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XLV loss to Green Bay - he was selected as the league’s defensive player of the year.
In 2009, he lost 11 games because of a knee injury.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo, who suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee against Oakland, was back on the practice field for the Patriots’ two bye-week sessions. Those were lower-key affairs, and it won’t be known until today at the earliest if there is a chance he’ll return Sunday.
True to form, Belichick wasn’t offering much about the All-Pro’s status.
“Jerod is definitely getting better,’’ Belichick said. “He works hard, as he always does. We had a few days away from here, so he’s gotten an opportunity to get some more healing and treatment. We’ll see where he is when we get out on the field this week. He’s certainly making progress and it will be great to have him back out there whenever that happens.’’
Belichick gave much the same answer when asked about the status of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who has missed five games because of a back issue. He practiced before the Dallas game but was inactive.
“We’ll put them out there, we’ll see what they can do,’’ Belichick said. “If they’re ready to practice, we’ll evaluate them. If they’re not, then we’ll do some more rehab and try it again at the next opportunity and see where they are at that point. That’s the way it is with any player who is not able to fully participate.’’
While the players scattered around the country during their five-day break, Belichick gave his coaches a couple of days away as well.
Belichick said he did some family stuff and caught up on some personal matters.
Friday night, he was on the sideline as Rutgers played Louisville. Belichick has a good relationship with Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano, and Belichick’s son, Stephen, is a long snapper on the team.
O’Brien said he was able to help spell his wife for a couple of days.
“I always describe it as kind of being an Army wife for my wife: six months on, six months off. It was good to get back and help her and then get back to work today.’’
Running back Kevin Faulk is the favorite to be the first player the Patriots activate off the physically unable to perform list to the 53-man roster. O’Brien was asked what Faulk can bring to the offense. “He would just add to what that group already has, meaning his intelligence, his experiences, his knowledge of the system,’’ O’Brien said. “Obviously those are things that Kevin has added for us over the years in all the different roles that he’s played.’’ . . . Free agent receiver Terrell Owens - who will turn 38 in December and is coming off ACL surgery - will hold a workout for NFL teams in California today. Asked if the Patriots would be present, director of player personnel Nick Caserio didn’t respond, and said the veteran of 15 seasons “is no different than a lot of players that have been on the street - we’ll evaluate those players, who are available, look at our situation, and make a determination if that’s something that would make sense for us.’’
Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.