Foxborough, Mass. - When the Pittsburgh Steelers last saw New England, Ty Law was lined up on the left side of the Patriots defense at cornerback, Randall Gay was an unknown commodity and Troy Brown wasn't a defensive back. Much has changed since then.
Law broke his left foot in the second quarter of the Patriots 34-20 loss at Heinz Field on Oct. 31 and never returned to the field before he was placed on injured reserve Jan. 7. Since that game, the term "patchwork" is what most use to describe the Patriots secondary. Without Law and Tyrone Poole, second-year player Asante Samuel has ascended from the team's nickel back to its most experienced corner, starting the last six games sandwiched around a shoulder injury that held him out four games. Gay has started nine games over that span, while safety Eugene Wilson and reserve Earthwind Moreland have both started on two occasions and Brown has emerged as the team's nickel back on passing downs.
Although some of the expected struggles have occurred, the Patriots have won nine of their 10 games since losing Law to injury. Needless to say, Samuel is tired of hearing the Patriots current core of cornerbacks can't get the job done. If anything, the experience of Samuel and Gay over the second half of the season has given them a new degree of confidence.
"Yeah. Of course we get tired of hearing that," said Samuel. "We've been in there since the third or fourth game of the season. We've been doing well and winning with us. So, of course I get tired of hearing it. I try to block all that out and just go play ball. Playing more than you usually would, and starting for however many games I've been starting, you build your confidence and experience out there. I just play with a lot more confidence."
Samuel, who says he doesn't read the papers but ultimately hears the talk, adds that it's a motivating factor.
"Most definitely it motivates me," he said. "When people are doubting you and think you can't go out and get the job done, so I just go out there with a little chip on my shoulder and try to prove them wrong."
The Patriots secondary will face a tough test in Sunday's AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh's trio of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. It's said that Samuel and Gay, among others, will have trouble with the bigger, more physical Steeler receivers. Then again, that's what is said every week. The Patriots held the Indianapolis Colts' Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley to a combined 16 receptions for 143 yards last week, a far cry from the mayhem the trio of 1,000-yard receivers was expected to create.
"I can speak for the critics," Samuel said of silencing the naysayers. "But we went out there and did our job."
Ward led Pittsburgh with six receptions for 58 yards in the previous meeting, while Randle El caught six for 44 yards. Burress had three receptions for 63 yards, beating Gay for touchdowns of 47 and 4-yards. Samuel, who is expected to start alongside Gay for just the fifth time this season, is looking for a better performance this time around.
"I'm not going to say we owe them," Samuel said. "They beat us down pretty bad. We want to go out and definitely play a better game than we did when we played them the first time."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said that Gay and Samuel have played well this season and remained competitive despite constantly hearing the talk that they can't fill the shoes of Law and Poole.
"I think that those two players in particular have had a solid year and have done a good job," Belichick said. "They have gone up against good people every week. Again, they have hung in there. Asante [Samuel] heard some of the same things last year. But, when you are a rookie, when you are young, those questions are always going to come up. I think that both those players have a good level of self-confidence, which is important. I'm not sure that they react so much to what somebody else thinks. It is more important what they think and how they prepare. [They] go out there and play with that kind of confidence in the game. They have done a good job with that. They haven't backed down. Not that every play is an interception or that they don't get beat, like everybody is. But, they compete well and stay after it."
Patriots injured defensive end Richard Seymour was able to join his teammates for a portion of practice Wednesday, the first definitive sign regarding his return from a left knee injury. Seymour, who joined his teammates yesterday for the stretching portion of practice for the first time since suffering the injury on Dec. 26, has missed the last two games with what some are reporting is an MCL injury. Belichick said how Seymour fares in today's practice would be a better indication of his progress.
"We'll see when Richard gets out there," Belichick said. "I know he's feeling better. He did a little more yesterday than he did last week, and so we'll see where he's at today."
The Patriots injury report had one addition from yesterday, as linebacker Ted Johnson was listed as probable with the flu. Seymour and running back Patrick Pass (ankle) both remain listed as questionable. The team reported all three players missed a portion of "team practice" Thursday.
Punt Return Progress
The Patriots didn't record a punt return for a touchdown during the regular season, but all the signs point to a recent improvement in that aspect of special teams. Brown returned to the punt return role late in the season, breaking loose for a 23-yard return against the New York Jets in Week 16 that set up an Adam Vinatieri field goal just before halftime, while recording a 20-yard return last week against Indianapolis. Bethel Johnson handled punts in the season finale against San Francisco, taking his first attempt for an 86-yard touchdown before it was called back by a penalty. Belichick said the Patriots punt return game, which ranked 29th overall in the league with 5.8-yard return average during the regular season, is starting to show signs of life.
"Lets hope so," he said. "I think that was the case the latter part of the year. I hope that's a trend that can continue. We've worked hard on that all year, although we didn't have much production until the end of the year and kind of felt like it was paying off and we're getting closer."
For those who believe in the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx, beware. Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi is the cover boy of this week's magazine, which certainly isn't what many of the superstitious Patriots fans are looking for. Bruschi appears on the January 24th edition standing with his hands on his hips in last week's 20-3 win over Indianapolis, underneath the title "Defense Rules The Playoffs." This is the third time this season a Patriot has appeared on the cover, as quarterback Tom Brady appeared on two covers earlier this season. For his part, Bruschi wasn't too talkative on the subject.
"My sister emailed me," he said. "She was going crazy. She was happy about it. I'll give you that. That's about all."
The Patriots practiced inside Gillette Stadium today. ... Belichick held a 10:45 a.m. press conference earlier today, followed by an open locker room access period. Samuel, Vinatieri, punter Josh Miller, tight end Christian Fauriaand linebackers Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin were among those who drew large media crowds. ... Belichick's Friday press conference will be later than usual, at 1:30 p.m., and will be followed by press conferences by Brady, Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. ... Belichick on Pittsburgh wide receiver Ward: "What can you say about Ward? The guy has just been a tremendous producer for them. He's I think one of the best all-around players in the league. He's outstanding." ... Belichick said he would review game film of the two late-season games between the Jets and the Steelers, including last weekend's overtime game in Pittsburgh. "Those are two of the most competitive games that the Steelers have had all year. I think the way the Jets played them was about as tough as you could play them really." ... Belichick isn't buying into the notion that the play of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has slipped since the teams' first match up this season. "The one number that hasn't changed is the won-loss record at the end of the game. That's the big thing for a quarterback is managing the game and doing what he needs to do to get the team to win. Look, every player has a couple bad plays in every game. Lawrence Taylor had bad plays in a game. Everybody has had them. Has Ben had a couple? Yeah, I'm sure there's a couple he would like to have back. So would everybody else."