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Patriots Notebook: Keys to beating Steelers, Vince Wilfork talks red-zone defense

The Patriots face the Steelers at 4:15 p.m. We get you ready for the showdown.

Here are a few things to roll around the cranium as we get set for Patriot-Steelers at 4:15 p.m.

RED ALERT. The Patriots D has given up its fair share of yardage so far this season. That being said, they’ve only given up a maximum of 20 yards once opposing teams enter the red zone. Boom! Roasted! On a serious note, the Pats' red-zone defense has actually been pretty solid, which may or may not come as a surprise, depending on how closely you pay attention to games.

Against Pittsburgh, the Pats will have plenty of offensive weapons to worry about. WR Mike Wallace is an obvious go-to guy for QB Ben Roethlisberger, and TE Heath Miller is about as big of a red-zone target as you can get. Don’t forget RB Rashard Mendenhall, who can break tackles and easily find the end zone.

In 24 red-zone trips, opponents have scored 13 touchdowns. Yes, that’s more than half. But the percentage is middle of the road, which the Patriots will surely take.

“I know that the red area is a critical point offensively and defensively in the game,” Vince Wilfork said. “You have to be able to win in the red area. There’s a difference from three points and seven points. Sometimes, three points turns to none if they miss. So that’s a critical area."

Why so much better in the red zone? Well, it’s a shorter field. That’s got to be the biggest thing. But it’s also a time where the defense has its back against the wall, and may give them a little extra pep.

“When it’s first-and-goal, we know it’s basically do-or-die for this series and the same thing when you get in the red area," said Wilfork. "You have to be alert. You have to be tuned into what they like to do down there."

To make matters more difficult, Roethlisberger adds a whole other element to the difficulty of red-zone defense — as he could scramble and try for the end zone himself at any time.

“We’re all alert of that,” Wilfork said. “Like I said, he makes a lot of plays with his legs and arm. Most times, you have quarterbacks that either scramble to run or scramble to throw. I think Ben does both.”

ROSTER UPDATES. On Friday, the Patriots placed cornerback Leigh Bodden on waivers. One day later, they announced that second-round draft pick Ras-I Dowling was put on injured reserve.

This is bad. Really bad, actually.

We don’t need to go into detail about how weak the Patriots' secondary has been this season — the Pats are dead last in pass defense. In the last two games the defense as a whole has looked solid, but to say that the secondary is a bit of a question mark would be a major understatement.

A move that many people still question is placing starting safety James Sanders on waivers prior to the start of the regular season. Now, the Bodden moves is equally puzzling. The initial thought was that Dowling must be ready or close to returning, so to see his name on IR is a head scratcher.

Prior to the Dowling news, Bill Belichick said this about the cornerback and his injury issues:

“I’d say that really none of the questions from last year are related to this year but it’s still affected his ability to be on the field. Of course, every player wants to be out there and as a coach you want every player out there," the coach said. "It hasn’t been easy for him; it hasn’t been easy for anybody. I think he’s tried and worked really hard, as has the medical staff and everybody else. We’ll see how it goes here.”

Belichick definitely had an idea that Dowling was heading to IR, and it was in that same press conference that the report broke that Bodden was to be released – a report that Belichick would not comment on.

When a reporter pressed the Bodden issue further, asking Belichick to comment on his play up to this point and what he expects to see going forth, Belichick said, “No, I think we’ll skip that one for right now.

NICE TO SEE YOU AGAIN. With two roster spots opening up due to the Bodden and Dowling moves, the Patriots activated Kevin Faulk and Brandon Deaderick from the PUP list and put them on the 53-man roster.

Faulk looks to boost a running back corps that has been hit with injuries. It’s still too early to tell just how many snaps he’ll get behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis with Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and little-used Shane Vereen in the mix, but his veteran presence on the practice field and during games is a valuable asset.

Faulk is the Patriots' all-time leader in all-purpose yards (12,247) and kickoff return yards (4,098) and is the Patriots’ all-time leading return specialist, totaling 5,030 combined return yards (4,098 kick-return yards and 932 punt-return yards).

Deaderick is a second-year defensive end out of Alabama drafted by the Pats in the seventh round. Last season he played in 10 games, including four starts, and totaled 17 tackles and 2.0 sacks.

Marcus Cannon, after a successful recovery from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is practicing with the team but wasn't activated to the 53-man roster.

“He’s had some limitations but he’s done what he can do. Whatever he’s been cleared to do, he has done," Belichick said. "Of course, this is the first week he could work out on the field and do anything but as far his conditioning and running and lifting, those kinds of things, the things that he was able to do, he worked at and he did."

The reach of Bill Belichick goes far beyond the game of football, as he has friends all over the sports world. On Friday, his good friend Tony La Russa won the World Series as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Earlier that day — before the Cardinals won — Belichick touched upon the friendship and the Cardinals team.

“Happy for Tony [La Russa] and wishing him well tonight [Friday night],” Belichick said. “That team has shown a lot of resiliency and physical toughness, mental toughness from being way behind in September and in the Series in various games.”

Belichick noted the benefits of befriending fellow coaches, regardless of the sport they coach.

“It’s good to talk to sometimes people in other sports,” he said. “Coaching is coaching — dealing with players, dealing with coaches, dealing with other situations. There is certainly a lot of common ground there. I’m fortunate to have a great relationship with a person like Tony or [University of Florida basketball coach] Billy Donovan or [Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach] Dave Pietramala, guys like that that are real good coaches, different sports but again I think we share some common philosophies.”


Three key guys on Pats » 1. Aaron Hernandez. The Pats TE didn’t play against Pittsburgh last season, but Brady seems to love him. Look for him to be targeted often. 2. Logan Mankins. I say Mankins, but I really mean the whole O-line. Brady will need them to hold strong and give him time in the pocket. 3. Devin McCourty. Second-year cornerback will have his hands full with Steelers WR Mike Wallace. They’ll absolutely have to have safety help.

Three key guys on Steelers » 1. Troy Polamalu. Steelers safety will be busy trying to read Brady and all his WR routes. Good luck. He hasn’t had much success in the past vs. Pats. 2. Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers QB has bee inconsistent this season, starting off extremely slow but then pouring it on occasionally. Who will show up this week? 3. Mike Tomlin. The Steelers coach will need a good gameplan to stop the Pats. His team has no quality wins this season, and it will be tough to get one today.

Metro's Prediction: Patriots 31, Steelers 20

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