NEWS

Patriots notebook: New England hopes for offensive improvement

Eric McHugh

There's a Steelers connection to one of Bill Belichick's pet phrases.

Although he joked that he couldn't remember ever uttering it, long-time Belichick observers know he has often said that you never stay the same - you're either getting better or worse. On Friday he attributed those words of wisdom to legendary Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls - a mark that Belichick very well could match this season.

"At that time, they were pretty good," Belichick said of Noll's great Steelers teams of the 1970s, "so it wasn't something that you as a competitor wanted to hear, because the Steelers were pretty good as it was. The thought of them getting a whole lot better than they already were was not a particularly pleasant thought if you had to play against them."

The quote is relevant this week because the Patriots' offense, which had been getting better and better each week and seemingly had reached an unstoppable level, got much worse last Monday night in Baltimore.

The Pats posted season lows in yards (326) and third-down success (a woeful 16.7 percent), and Tom Brady had his lowest completion percentage (.474) and passer rating (76.3).

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels saw the downturn as a continuation of some problems that cropped up against the Eagles the previous week.

"We've had too much inconsistency the last couple of weeks here, I'd say, and we've got to start playing on a consistent basis (and) eliminate the mistakes," McDaniels said.

McDaniels said Randy Moss' diminished production over the last two games was the result of a "number of factors," including poor throws and drops, including one in the end zone last week. Oh, and the opposing defenses.

"Certainly, teams have tried to do things to force us to go other places with the football and that's always a part of it," McDaniels said. "We're going to be willing to do that if they try to take somebody away."

The Ravens last week shut down both Moss and Wes Welker, something that no other opponent had been able to do. McDaniels said Baltimore scaled back its blitzes and dropped more defenders into coverage to try to combat the Patriots' outside and over-the-middle threats.

The Steelers boast the league's top-ranked pass defense, although they are next-to-last in interceptions with only eight. Philadelphia has seven INTs.

Roethlisberger resurgence

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has flourished under first-year head coach Mike Tomlin and new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who used to tutor Peyton Manning in Indy (1998-2000) and served as Pittsburgh's receivers coach the past three years.

Roethlisberger was hurt in a motorcycle crash after the 2005 season and needed an appendectomy on the eve of the 2006 opener. He never seemed right and threw an NFL-high 23 INTs (against 18 TDs) as the Steelers slumped to 8-8 in their failed Super Bowl defense.

This season, Big Ben has a career-high 25 TDs (No. 3 in the NFL), 11 INTs and a 102.9 passer rating (No. 4) as Arians has opened up the offense and given Roethlisberger more say.

"He's reading plays, reading receivers, reading routes, understanding the difference between man and zone coverage," Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "His mental game has risen."

Roethlisberger, who is 1-3 against the Patriots (6 TDs, 3 INTs), also is being guided by ex-Bengals QB Ken Anderson, his position coach. Anderson holds the NFL single-season record for completion percentage - 70.55 in 1982. That's a mark that Brady has had in his sights all season, although his 18-of-38 outing in Baltimore dropped him to 70.2 for the season.

Blending in

ESPN's commentators incorrectly attributed Monday's key fourth-down false-start penalty to starting RG Stephen Neal, even though Russ Hochstein had replaced him by that point, presumably because Neal's cranky shoulder was acting up again. Belichick said he often makes similar mistakes.

That's a good thing because it means subs Hochstein, Wesley Britt, Ryan O'Callaghan and Billy Yates are blending in seamlessly.

"Dante (Scarnecchia, the offensive line coach) mixes them in in practice so they all get a lot of reps," Belichick said. "When you're just kind of watching the offense and you're not really focusing all of your attention on the offensive line, you kind of don't realize who's in there ... I'm not saying they all look the same; I don't mean it that way. I'm just saying in terms of execution that it's not real noticeable when one player's in there or one isn't. They all seem to function and operate well together, and certainly Russ is a part of that unit."

Happy family

The Patriots were in good spirits in the locker room Friday with C Dan Koppen exulting over his dominoes win over Moss, and Hobbs jokingly vowing revenge on S Rashad Baker for stealing Hobbs' brand-new sneakers.

"Just got 'em. Mama sent 'em in the mail, like (in) college," Hobbs said with mock indignation. Hobbs said Baker's theft forced him to walk home through the snow in flip-flops. "I got salt wounds. There's salt over the street."

Asked why his mom is still buying him shoes, Hobbs replied, "My mom loves me." Um, shouldn't you be buying her shoes? "I bought her plenty of shoes," Hobbs said. "It's a give and take."

Harrison fined

Patriots safety Rodney Harrison has been fined $5,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct for taunting Ravens coach Brian Billick in last Monday night's game, the NFL Network reported Friday.

Harrison yelled at Billick after James Sanders' interception return, prompting Billick to blow kisses at Harrison.

Of note

Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees coached Steelers LB James Harrison at Kent State. Harrison has a team-best 8.5 sacks. … The Steelers have allowed only two 100-yard rushers in the past 62 games, playoff included. They had gone 34 games without one before Thomas Jones of the Jets stunned them for 117 yards on 30 carries in a 19-16 upset loss in OT in Game 10. … The Steelers have won the time-of-possession battle in all 12 games this season. The Patriots lost it last week for only the third time. … Under Belichick, the Patriots are 24-6 in December, including 16-2 since 2003.

The Patriot Ledger