FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (Sept. 22, 2005) -- New England could be fortunate that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a running team. The Patriots already are low on healthy defensive backs for their game.
Just two games into the season, the Patriots have five of them listed as questionable, leaving just five not on their injury report.
Last season, the health of the secondary got so bad that wide receiver Troy Brown filled in at cornerback.
"Well," coach Bill Belichick said, "we know that if we have to put him over there that is an option. That is an emergency measure. Just like last year, we hope that we don't get to that."
Linebacker Don Davis also filled in last season at safety. The key to the secondary, safety Rodney Harrison, is healthy, but knows the team must prepare differently than it would if the secondary was at full strength.
"You never know who's going to be in there," he said. "It affects the communication. However, everyone has to be ready and that's no excuse because everyone has injuries right now."
Harrison isn't worried that the communication could be disrupted by the loud Pittsburgh fans.
"They can't throw. They can't catch," Harrison said. "All they can do is yell, scream, swear at you ... They're fans sitting down, drinking beer, eating popcorn and pizza, and you respect that and that's what you like. You like to interact with the fans. You like to see the fans have a good time."
The 12 Patriots listed as questionable include cornerbacks Tyrone Poole, Randall Gay, Duane Starks and Chad Scott and safety James Sanders.
Poole started the opening win against Oakland, hurt his ankle and missed the team's 27-17 loss at Carolina. Gay started in his place and left the game with an ankle injury. Starks sat out the opener, Scott missed the second game and Sanders was sidelined for both.
The Steelers prefer to run the ball, so that should take some pressure off defensive backs to defend against Ben Roethslisberger's passes. But the secondary will have to contend with wide receiver Hines Ward's strong downfield blocking.
"He's probably as good as there is in the game," Belichick said. "not just on defensive backs, but also coming in and getting linebackers, which is unusual for a lot of receivers."
In Pittsburgh's 34-20 regular-season win over New England last year, Ward caught a 47-yard scoring pass against Gay two plays after he replaced Ty Law, who left with a foot injury.
But in the AFC championship game at Pittsburgh, the Patriots had three interceptions and Brown made three tackles when they beat the Steelers 41-27.
"I think we had some banged-up DBs here last year," said Patriots linebacker Chad Brown, signed after eight seasons in Seattle. "I wasn't here, but we managed to survive."
Which of the injured defensive backs will play? Of the four listed as questionable for the previous game, only Starks played, while Poole, Sanders and Scott sat out.
Scott said he'll play, then added, "as far as I know."
And Poole, who hurt his ankle, "is one of our best-conditioned athletes," Belichick said. "He's working hard to be back."
All five missed parts of practices Sept. 21 and 22.
Harrison has experience in a makeshift secondary and is prepared if he has to be the leader of another.
"It's always tough, but you just have to deal with it," he said. "You still have to go out there and make plays, whoever's out there."