Hampton to Return for 1st-Place Steelers

Mike Tomlin didn't want to hear about his Steelers being in first place, but he's nonetheless pleased with his team as they prepare for the Patriots.

With the help of the Jacksonville Jaguars' win over the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers are back in first place in the AFC North. with the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals a half game behind.

Does that matter to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin?

"No," he said at his weekly press conference Tuesday.

But, he was asked in a follow-up, does it make Sunday's game against the New England Patriots a big game for potential playoff seeding purposes?

"Oh, gosh," Tomlin said. "It's October."

It'll still be October on Sunday when the Patriots come to Heinz Field to try and beat the Steelers for the eighth time in the teams' last 10 meetings.

This seeming mastery of the Steelers by the Patriots began in 1998 and includes playoff wins following the 2001 and 2004 seasons. The Steelers did beat the Patriots during the 2004 regular season in their only win against Tom Brady, the Patriots' quarterback.

This year the Patriots are 5-1. They lost to the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 25, 34-31, thanks to four interceptions of Brady.

"That typically happens once every five years," Tomlin said. "We're not anticipating him throwing us four balls. We'd better be prepared to get off the field the hard way."

It'll help that five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton is expected back after missing the last three games with a shoulder injury.

During his absence, the Steelers actually improved against the run. After allowing 4.8 yards per carry in their first four games, the Steelers allowed 4.1 per carry without Hampton.

It helped that first Chris Hoke played so well and second that third-team nose tackle Steve McLendon played so well in Hoke's absence last Sunday.

At 6 feet 4, McLendon, the second-year player out of Troy University, doesn't fit the prototype for the position, particularly that set forth by fireplugs Hampton and Hoke.

"He's grown into that type of guy," Tomlin said. "He's a much bigger guy than he was two, three years ago when he got here."

McLendon was signed to the practice squad three years ago as a 280-pound rookie. Today he weighs 320 and the Steelers will need all he and Hampton can muster against the Patriots, whose top-ranked passing game overshadows the NFL's 10th-ranked rushing attack.

"They attack you how they choose to attack you," Tomlin said. "We know they're capable of moving up and down the field passing the football, but we're not going to underestimate what they're capable of doing running the football."

But after another ranking was thrown at Tomlin – the Patriots' 32nd-ranked defense – he scoffed.

"That's a function of them just whacking people and being way out in front," Tomlin said. "If you come in and think they're the 32nd-ranked defense, you're fooling yourself."

About the Patriots' passing attack, Tomlin said that upon further review ace cornerback Ike Taylor probably won't cover the league's leading receiver, Wes Welker.

Tomlin, of course, wouldn't reveal his plan, but did mention that he expects free-agent acquisition Chad Ochocinco, who has only 9 receptions this season, to play a bigger role for the Patriots on Sunday since they're coming off a bye week. Taylor, of course, had successfully covered Ochocinco in man coverage throughout his 10 seasons with the Bengals.

Tomlin does believe the Steelers are coming into the game off their best performance of the season.

"That was the closest thing to 60 minutes of football that we've put together at this point," he said of the 32-20 win at Arizona. "Not to be confused with putting together 60 minutes, but it was closer than any of our other performances."

NOTES – Tomlin said that injured players James Harrison (eye), Hoke (neck), Doug Legursky (toe) and Jason Worilds (quad) remain "status quo," which presumably means they won't practice this week. Tomlin also said he's unsure about the availability of Hines Ward (ankle) and rookie cornerback Curtis Brown (back spasms), whose injury is minor but as a rookie would miss the game if he misses practice. … About the continued undisciplined play of seven-year veteran Chris Kemoeatu, the left guard who was flagged for two personal fouls Sunday, Tomlin said, "We're going to encourage him to not do that."