FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots' defense hasn't exactly been drawing comparisons to Pittsburgh's esteemed Steel Curtain.
It's been porous at times, lacking consistency and depending on Tom Brady and New England's offense to offset the lapses. That's a shaky gameplan, especially for Sunday when the Patriots visit the Steelers.
"You really have to take advantage of if they make a mistake, you have to create — with good execution on your side — you have to create your own opportunities," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "They have a very experienced group of players that they've pretty much seen everything they're going to see — big games, situations, schemes."
Belichick made some big defensive changes in the offseason, beefing up the pass rush and adding Albert Haynesworth to the line in order to stuff some inside running lanes.
The adjustment has been slow-going as opponents have put up some Patriots-like offensive statistics, leaving New England ranked last in the NFL in total defense. Yet the Patriots (5-1) lead the AFC East and the defense has been slowly getting better.
Progress was evident in New England's most recent game, when the offense struggled against Dallas and needed a touchdown with 22 seconds left in the game to rally to a 20-16 win over the Cowboys. The defense held Dallas to just six points in the second half, keeping the Patriots close enough that Brady could lead the 80-yard winning drive.
"I think everything is moving forward. We're in the middle of the season and things we do well, we have to continue to do well. Things we don't do so well but can help us, we need to find a way to make those things happen for us," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said Thursday. "We're definitely at a situation where we're still building. Everything's not perfect but it's moving along pretty good."
They may want to move it along a little quicker. Pittsburgh's offense is no slouch. Ben Roethlisberger is completing almost 63 percent of his passes for 1,937 yards and 12 touchdowns while leading the Steelers (5-2) to the top of the AFC North.
Haynesworth said the Patriots plan to pressure Roethlisberger, but getting near him and bringing down the 6-foot-5, 240-pound QB are two different matters entirely.
"Even if you hit him, it's not going to mean you're going to take him down. I mean, he's a guy that can break a lot of tackles and get away from the rush. Even if you're hitting him and he's going down, he still can throw the ball," Haynesworth said. "With him you've got to definitely emphasize finishing the rush and finishing the tackle because he can still get away."
New England's three Super Bowl titles are the most of the young century, but Pittsburgh is right behind with two. And both of the Steelers' have come more recently than the Patriots, who have been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs the last two years after dominant regular seasons.
That prompted Belichick's defensive changes, which will get a thorough examination Sunday against the Steelers.
New England's improvement started to really show Oct. 9 against the rival Jets, who gained just 255 yards as the Patriots won 30-21. The Patriots hosted Dallas the following week and for the first time this season, the defense set up the offense to win it.
The Cowboys drove inside the 20 three times, but scored only one touchdown and had to settle for two field goals. The Patriots also forced a three-and-out on Dallas' second-to-last possession, giving New England the ball back at its own 20 with 2:31 remaining — plenty of time for Brady to lead the comeback.
Two strong defensive performances in a row have New England fans hoping the improve continues and will balance the Patriots as Super Bowl contenders once again.
Pittsburgh, which lost to Green Bay in last year's Super Bowl, will be a good indicator.
"We've been a little bit better the past few weeks. I think we're just starting to get some continuity with the guys that we're playing with," cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "We were lawyers comfortable with one another, but just as far as continuity goes, it speaks for itself. We've still got little stuff to work on as far as technique and self-inflicting wounds — stuff like giving up plays that are just on us. It's not good offense. It's just poor technique, poor defense.
"We're still a work in progress."