By BOB LABRIOLA
Matt Cassel is coming off back-to-back 400-yard games, and his 90.5 passer rating places him fifth in the AFC. Wes Welker's 80 catches has him second in the NFL in that category, and 38 of those have been good for first downs. Randy Moss leads the AFC with eight touchdowns, and he has 10 catches of 20 yards or longer. Kevin Faulk is averaging 5.6 yards per carry to go along with 36 catches, and every time the team faces a critical third down situation the ball seems to end up in his hands.
The New England Patriots still have a potent offense, even without Tom Brady, but this time the Steelers can counter with a healthy defense.
Last year when the Steelers went to Gillette Stadium, their starting safeties were Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter, because Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were out; LaMarr Woodley was inactive because of injury, and Aaron Smith would leave the game with a torn biceps and miss the rest of the season.
And if there was one area the Patriots exploited more than the others, it was the safeties. Brady threw a 63-yard touchdown pass to Moss and 56 and 32-yard touchdown passes to Jabar Gaffney.
Having Clark and Polamalu healthy and playing well for this game should impact that, but the Steelers defense is far from 100 percent. Brett Keisel is out with a knee injury, and Deshea Townsend will miss another game because of his hamstring. Bryant McFadden has not played since Oct. 19 in Cincinnati because of a broken arm, and he started this week of preparation listed as questionable.
As Coach Mike Tomlin says weekly, injuries are a part of the game and the standard of expectation doesn't change, but that doesn't mean it won't be comforting to have Polamalu and Clark patrolling the deep secondary.
"Ryan, first and foremost, is having a heck of a season for us," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "I don't want to devalue the plays that he makes because he is making quality plays for us and playing good football. The added bonus is that he does a nice job of communicating with others and making sure people are on the same page. He's exhibiting leadership qualities you desire from a guy who stands in the middle of the field.
"Because of those reasons, he's well respected by his teammates and by the coaching staff. At the same time, I don't want to devalue the plays he makes by talking about some of the things he does to help other people out."
Just because the Steelers will have Clark and Polamalu and the Patriots won't have Brady doesn't necessarily equate to a leisurely late afternoon at Gillette Stadium, however. Matt Cassel has been that good.
"It is obvious they have a lot of confidence in what this young man is doing for them," said Tomlin about Cassel. "Yes, they are willing to do whatever it is that they deem necessary to win. He threw it quite a few times last week for over 400 yards. I think that his numbers speak for themselves; he has a 90-plus passer rating. He is showing that he is a player in this league at that position. It is a good thing for them."
Cassel's play has been a surprise to most everyone, because he has not been a full-time starter since high school. He was a backup at USC behind Carson Palmer and then Matt Leinart, and then he was drafted by a team that had Tom Brady as its starter. But for a guy who completed only 59 passes since graduating from Chatsworth High School, Cassel has more than held up his end as Brady's replacement.
"He is surprisingly mobile," said Tomlin. "You have seen the highlights all year and you know that he can make any of the throws on the field. You know that he's doing a nice job of communicating and running their offense. The added element he brings is the ability to buy time and create as pockets collapse. He was their leading rusher vs. the Jets; he has almost 200 yards rushing on the season. He's a big reason why they are seventh in the league in rushing. His ability to escape is an issue, an issue that you do not historically have to deal with when you prepare to play New England."