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Steeler pride (cont.)

Posted: Thursday December 6, 2007 11:26AM; Updated: Thursday December 6, 2007 11:26AM
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Linebacker James Harrison has become a force on the Steelers defense.
Linebacker James Harrison has become a force on the Steelers defense.
Al Tielemans/SI
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Every week, Tomlin compiles a report that tells his players what is lacking and what needs improvement. Though he is not as confrontational as his predecessor, Bill Cowher, Tomlin has his own way of conveying a message, says running back Willie Parker.

"He doesn't sugarcoat anything that isn't up to his caliber or his standard," Parker said during a conference call. "He'll let you know."

While Sunday's game represents Tomlin's first foray against Bill Belichick, the Steelers and Patriots have a recent history almost as rich as Patriots-Colts. In the 2001 and 2004 seasons, New England advanced to the Super Bowl after defeating Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game. During the '04 season, the Steelers ended New England's 21-game winning streak, a victory memorable for linebacker Joey Porter pounding Tom Brady and forcing him into mistakes.

Porter is gone, but the Steelers have restocked with James Harrison, another pass-rushing, outside linebacker who chases quarterbacks from the blind side.

The Patriots, for their part, have looked tired the last couple of weeks, as if the burden of carrying a perfect record into December is catching up with them. Defensively, the tackling hasn't been as crisp and the pass rush seems a step slow. Even the offense has shown a few bugs, with receivers dropping passes and Brady facing more heat in the pocket than he has all year.

While Belichick would never admit weakness, he gave the players a rare day off from practice Wednesday following three consecutive prime-time games against the Bills, Eagles and Ravens. (Asked if the rest was the result of the night games, Belichick said the Patriots' coaching staff wanted to use the time to sharpen the game plan for Pittsburgh before presenting it to the players.)

Blowout wins have been the story of the Patriots' season, but so have the nail-biting, emotional victories: at Dallas on Oct. 14, at Indianapolis on Nov. 4, vs. Philadelphia on Nov. 25, at Baltimore last Monday.

Now, the Patriots face a Steelers team that has listened all season to people telling them they aren't in New England's class. That still could be the case, but you get the feeling the Steelers are glad they have three hours Sunday to figure it out.

"Their quest to go undefeated is not our story -- that's their story," Tomlin said. "Our story is that we play them this week and we want to beat them because they're on our schedule. We're going to play football this weekend."

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