FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In a way, all Hines Ward did was say what the rest of the league was thinking.
In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh Steelers 's 25-17 triumph over the New England Patriots on Sunday at Heinz Field, Ward, who did not dress for the game because of an ankle injury, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "I probably could have forced it and played, but ... I wasn't really concerned. And against the Patriots, we felt we could exploit their secondary."
Yes, even a bum ankle didn't prevent Ward from kicking the Patriots' pass defense while it was down. The unit already ranked dead last in pass defense entering Sunday's game, and the Steelers were happy to pile on. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put the ball in the air 50 times, completing 36 passes for 365 yards and a pair of touchdowns. More impressively, the Steelers converted 10 of 16 third-down attempts, picking up 23 of their 29 total first downs through the air, and dominated time of possession because of it.
Then Ward piled on more with his comments.
"That wasn't the same secondary that we played against a year ago without having [James Sanders], [Brandon Meriweather] wasn't back there, and they let Leigh Bodden go," Ward said. "We kind of liked our matchups. So there was no need for me to try to force it and go."
Opponents are averaging 424.1 yards per game against the Patriots (fourth-highest average allowed by a team through seven games since the AFL-NFL merger, according to ESPN Stats & Information), including 323.1 yards per game through the air. That's not just worst in the league; it's on pace to be the worst in league history. No team has allowed more than 284 yards per game through the air over the course of a full season.
All of which forced Patriots players to sort of shrug and acknowledge that there might actually be some truth to what Ward said. Opponents now have thrown the ball 285 times this season against the Patriots, completing 190 passes for 2,355 yards and 12 touchdowns with an opposing quarterback rating of 93.0.
That doesn't mean Ward's opinions sat well in the Patriots' locker room. While players didn't address those comments head on, they acknowledged hearing the whispers around the league about how teams are blissfully attacking New England's secondary.
"Of course it bothers me, but I don't really think it's important," said second-year cornerback Devin McCourty, a defensive captain. "You can't control how somebody feels, and what we put out on tape is us, so if somebody looks at it and that's how they feel -- it is what it is. That's not going to change our attitude. We're still going to watch the film, and we're going to come out to play and come out to try to stop people.
"No matter what they say, if they're nice to us in the media and say all good things, we're still going to come out and try to shut them down. That's still our focus."
The Patriots seemed to be making progress before their bye, limiting the New York Jets to 166 yards through the air in Week 5, while the Dallas Cowboys mustered 317 yards in Week 6 (still the Pats' second-lowest total of the season). But the Patriots simply had no answer for getting off the field against the Steelers.
"In this game, you have to find a weakness, and right now our weakness is our passing [defense]," said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, another defensive captain.
"One-dimensional teams shouldn't be able to beat us. I always say that. We have to do a better job, all the way around. If teams want to attack us that way, we have to make adjustments. We gotta stop them moving forward. That's where we are at. We have to take what they give us. If that's how they want to attack us, we'll let them attack and we'll have to do a better job defending that."
The Patriots have dismissed the idea that overhauls in the secondary are causing problems but acknowledged that communication is still a work in progress. As Ward noted, the team overhauled its safety position at the start of the year, and Bodden's departure further tweaked the corner position. The Patriots played last week with two nickel corners (Antwaun Molden and Phillip Adams) with extremely limited NFL experience in terms of defensive snaps.
The unit now must jell on the fly, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick seemed to go out of his way this week to take some of the heat off his young corners, suggesting the linebackers and safeties were more at fault for New England's troubles against the Steelers.
Needless to say, improvements are needed across the board on defense. New England players are trudging on.
"I think our outlook is, really, that we're going to get better," McCourty said. "We really don't worry about what everybody else says. We're just trying to get better and we're trying to do it as soon as possible. When we go out there today, we're going to have that urgency at practice to get better. [We're] trying to make sure it keeps coming over on Sundays, not just for a week, not for two weeks, but that we can be consistent stringing each game together."
Things don't necessarily get any easier this week when the Giants visit. Eli Manning is completing 64.7 percent of his passes, having thrown for 2,127 yards with 13 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
McCourty admitted the only solution is hard work during the week and execution on Sundays.
"I wish there was a way we could just press a button or something, but it's just hard work and I think time, putting the extra effort into it, watching film together -- doing all that stuff I think will pay off for us," he said.
Maybe cornerback Kyle Arrington put it best. The Patriots are in no position to be able to get into a war of words with the likes of Ward, as it's impossible to deny what he's saying.
"I can't speak for everybody, but I know me, personally, I let my play do the talking on the field," Arrington said.
And only better play from the entire defense will keep the likes of Ward from doing his talking.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.