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Parker back to practice

Willie Parker returned to practice Thursday, and the Pro Bowl running back is hopeful that he will be able to play Sunday when the Steelers visit the New England Patriots. Parker, who aggravated an injury to his left knee in last week's 27-10 win over the Bengals, did not appear to be limited as he took part in a practice that lasted more than two hours at the team's South Side facility.

"I was real pleased," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "He cut pretty good, so we'll keep our fingers crossed."

Parker has missed five games this season because of knee and shoulder problems. The Steelers re-signed veteran running back Najeh Davenport yesterday as insurance if Parker is unable to play against the Patriots. On testing his knee yesterday, Parker, who leads the Steelers in rushing (485 yards), said "I was just out there seeing how it feels. We'll take it day-by-day." When asked if his practicing was a good sign, Parker said, "Always." Rookie cornerback Roy Lewis was cut.

• Starting inside linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Anthony Madison didn't practice yesterday though the Steelers said both were excused from drills for reasons other than injuries. Marvel Smith (back) did not practice, all but assuring that Max Starks will start his seventh consecutive game at left tackle Sunday. Brett Keisel (knee) also didn't practice yesterday, and the starting defensive end is out for at least the next two weeks.

• Former teammates and roommates will find themselves on opposite sides at New England. Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu and Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel lived together while they were at USC, and the two will have plenty to congratulate each other on while catching up Sunday. Polamalu is tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions while Cassel, who had not started a game at quarterback since high school prior to this season, has posted back-to-back 400-yard passing games. He also has kept the Patriots in contention in the AFC despite the loss of Tom Brady.

"He's a great guy," Polamalu said of Cassel. "He's a really funny guy, really outgoing." Cassel had good things to say about Polamalu. "He was a great roommate," Cassel said. "Clean as could be."

• Cheers erupted yesterday in practice after Chris Hoke intercepted a Byron Leftwich pass. With his teammates hooting and hollering, the veteran nose tackle rumbled down the right sideline on one of the practice fields at the team's South Side facility. Afterward, Hoke did not try to suppress a grin as he talked about the interception. It was the first one he had ever made, Hoke said, and it came after he had dropped back into coverage.

"I turned around, and there was the ball," Hoke said. "It was awesome." Only one thing would have made it better. "I was telling the guys on the sidelines 'I wish that would have been in a game,' " Hoke said.

Digits

22.5 Combined sacks of Steelers outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, making them statistically the top pass-rushing duo in the NFL.

34 Times Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel has been sacked this season.

0 Times the Steelers' defense has allowed 300 yards or more of total offense in 11 games this season.

14 Record since the NFL merger in 1970 for consecutive games in which a defense allowed fewer than 300 yards of total offense (Los Angeles Rams, 1973).

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