First-place Steelers prepare to host nemesis New England

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin heard the question and cringed just a little.

Yes, it's true the Pittsburgh Steelers -- the team dubbed "old, slow and ... over" by critics during an uneven opening month -- are alone in first place in the AFC North.

And yes, Tomlin doesn't want to talk about it. Not before Halloween and certainly not with New England (5-1) coming to town on Sunday.


"Oh gosh, it's October," Tomlin said Tuesday. "We're just trying to win week to week and keep pace with the elite."

Pittsburgh (5-2) is a half-game ahead of Baltimore (4-2) and Cincinnati (4-2).

The Steelers would like to build upon it with wide receiver Hines Ward, who is questionable after injuring his ankle against the Cardinals. Ward typically does not practice with the team on Wednesdays and will likely be given the day off to help him recover.

Tomlin declined to take a guess on whether Ward will play.


"I won't be surprised about anything that Hines is capable of," Tomlin said, "particularly from a health standpoint."

Nose tackle Casey Hampton, who has missed three straight games, could be back though the team will be without linebacker James Harrison (fractured orbital bone), nose tackle Chris Hoke (stinger) and guard Doug Legursky (dislocated toe).

Despite the absence of Harrison and Hampton, the defense has started to round into form. Linebacker James Farrior has 5 1/2 sacks in his last three games, the secondary came up with a rare interception against the Cardinals last Sunday and cornerback Ike Taylor held Larry Fitzgerald in check.

All good signs heading into another showdown with the Patriots, who have had their way with the Steelers since Tom Brady took over. Tomlin dismissed the notion New England's defense -- ranked 32nd in the league in yards allowed -- is soft.

"That is a function of them just whacking people and being way out in front," Tomlin said. "So if you come in and you think they are the 32nd best defense in football you are kidding yourself. They are whacking people pretty good. People are throwing the ball every down and they accumulate some yards, it is insignificant."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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