Offense: Keep Cassel Safe
The Patriots may have dodged a big bullet this week when All-Pro left tackle Matt Light was fined, but not suspended, for his altercation with Miami LB Channing Crowder last weekend. New England will need Light and the rest of their regular offensive line to help keep Pittsburgh's pass-rush tandem of LaMarr Woodleyand James Harrisonfrom harassing QB Matt Cassel.
Harrison has 12 sacks on the season and Woodley 10.5 – oh, and Cassel has been sacked a troubling 34 times this year. While the line has done a much better job of keeping opposing defenders away from Cassel of late, he's also improved his pocket presence and decision-making when it comes to tucking and running when the pocket collapses.
The Steelers may not have faced as athletic a quarterback as Cassel all season, so this match-up will be the most intriguing to watch.
Defense: Secondary a primary concern
Earlier this year, injuries were the main concern for the New England defensive backs. Then it became big plays downfield. Now, it seems to be the middle of the field where opposing quarterbacks are targeting this group.
Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisbergeris a big, strong-armed QB who can make all the throws. As a group, the Pats DBs will need to come up with their biggest game of the year to prevent what could turn out to be a shootout of a game. It may come down to which offense has the ball last.
Special Teams: Kick it up a notch
New England's Stephen Gostkowskiis among the NFL leaders in touchbacks this season with 16. With the weather a potential factor in this game, field position could be a deciding factor. If Gostkowski can continue to kick the way he has and thereby pin Pittsburgh deep in its own end, that could help the Pats defense get pressure on Roethlisberger.
When punting, New England's Chris Hansonmust likewise be cognizant of where he is on the field and how hard he strikes the ball, particularly when he's trying to down the ball inside the Steelers' 20. He's been shaky at times this season, but lately, seems to have found a rhythm.
Intangibles: A playoff feel
The Patriots have had the upper hand against the Steelers of late, winning six of the last seven meetings, both at home and at Heinz Field. This game could be important as far as tie-breakers for the playoffs are concerned, so Sunday's game will have a playoff feel to it.
Pittsburgh currently leads the AFC North division, with only a one-game lead over 7-4 Baltimore, while New England, at 7-4, is chasing the 8-3 Jets for first place in the AFC East.
The weather could be a factor, potentially a deciding factor depending on how severe it is.
Friday locker room/practice notebook
DL Richard Seymour, who missed two straight days of practice with a knee injury, spoke to reporters prior to Friday's practice, declaring himself "fine" and saying that he "will play on Sunday."
Later, Seymour rejoined his teammates on the practice field. On an on-and-off rainy day here in New England, the Pats chose to practice outside, perhaps in anticipation of Sunday's forecast, which calls for showers.
The only players absent from the start of the workout were WR Kelley Washingtonand LB Adalius Thomas, both of whom have been out all this week.