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Stopping Pats' Wilfork key

Friday, Oct. 28, 2011

At first glance, it appears the Steelers should exploit New England's soft underbelly -- a pass defense ranked last in the NFL.

The Steelers' fleet-footed receivers -- Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown -- should prance and dance through a surprisingly jittery secondary that may cause New England's usually stoic coach Bill Belichick to flinch every time quarterback Ben Roethlisberger settles into the pocket Sunday at Heinz Field.

Unlike last season's 39-26 defeat, the Steelers might be able to keep up with the Patriots' run-and-gun offense.

But the Steelers are only cautiously optimistic, in part, because they will be challenged to run against a New England rush defense ranked fourth in the AFC and eighth overall.

So far, the Steelers have followed a familiar script during their 5-2 start. Their passing game is lethal even when they have only minimal success pounding the ball between tackles.

"They have a good play-action game, which comes off the running game," said New England coach Bill Belichick. "They can throw it with not very many receivers on the field, or they can put a lot of receivers on the field."

If the Steelers are to avenge last year's loss, running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman must make the most of their touches.

"If we come out running the ball, everything else will open up," tight end David Johnson said. "Last year, I don't remember us doing anything well. But we have to be strapped up and ready to go this time."

Whatever game plan the Steelers come up with, it will be greatly influenced by the Patriots' mammoth, yet agile 6-foot-2, 325-pound nose tackle, Vince Wilfork.

"He swallows up a lot of blockers," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. "He paves the way for the linebackers to make a lot of plays. We've got to handle him. We've got to be ready to block him.

"The Patriots rely on him a lot, especially in the run game. In the passing game, it's a little bit different."

The Steelers are confident they can exploit the Patriots' pass defense if Pouncey can handle Wilfork. And Pouncey will get plenty of help from guards Ramon Foster and Chris Kemoeatu, partly because the Patriots usually leave the guards uncovered.

The Steelers' offensive front has been sporadic all season, mostly because of injuries. It played well in a 32-20 victory at Arizona last Sunday but has struggled against the NFL's best defensive linemen, including Baltimore nose tackle Haloti Ngata and Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Feeney.

The Steelers are averaging 117.9 rushing yards per game, which is eighth in the AFC. Mendenhall was largely shut down in a season-opening loss at Baltimore and in a last-second victory at Indianapolis. He faces a Patriots defense that yields 101.5 rushing yards per game.

Again, the challenge is to control and minimize Wilfork's ability to impact the game.

The Patriots use Wilfork in a variety of ways in their 3-4 defensive set, sometimes allowing him to drift into pass coverage in blitz situations. He has two interceptions along with 25 tackles this season.

"He's the one who sets the tone," Kemoeatu said. "Ngata might be better, but not by much."

Of course, the Steelers want to control the time of possession. They would like to dictate tempo and pace, thus forcing New England to rely on something akin to a half-court game instead of an offense that thrives on fast-break opportunities.

"We have to control the clock to keep Tom Brady off the field," Redman said. "It'll give our offense a chance to make adjustments."

Added Wallace: "When we're running, we have a chance. We don't want too many quick drives."




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