Patriots defense sets dominating tone

PITTSBURGH -- As the New England Patriots' best defensive lineman and a team captain, Vince Wilfork took what unfolded last week in Cleveland personally. It stewed within for seven days, before he and his defensive teammates unleashed their fury in a 39-26 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night at Heinz Field.

The Patriots totaled a season-high five quarterback sacks, while returning to the bend-but-don't-break approach that defined them through the season's first seven games.

"Especially coming off an embarrassing loss, as a defensive unit, we just wanted this game to hurry up and get here," Wilfork said.

Last week, Wilfork said the loss to the Browns was a result of poor preparation -- "practice crappy, play crappy" was the way he succinctly put it. He saw improvement in that area this time around.

"We had to take care of what we had to take care of in practice, and I think everybody did a good job of putting the Cleveland game behind us and focusing on the Steelers," he said. "We prepared well. Guys came ready to work. We were eager to get this game started to get rid of the bad taste of last week."

From the first drive of the game, the Patriots' defense set a tone, mixing its packages from a 3-4 base alignment to a 4-2-5 nickel and a 3-2-6 dime, and forcing a three-and-out. They kept the pressure on throughout.

"I don't think they did anything to confuse us or anything like that," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. " I think they just flat-out beat us. It was a good, old-fashioned butt-whooping, and you never like it when it's at home."

After the Patriots failed to establish the line of scrimmage last week, there was no such problem in Pittsburgh.

"We came out and played aggressive and physical," Wilfork said. "If you want to beat the Steelers, you have to be able to play physical. If you don't, they'll run you out of the building. One point of emphasis was standing up to these guys."

The Patriots generated as much pressure as they have all season, taking advantage of a Steelers offensive line that was depleted and playing three backups. Interior rusher Mike Wright and sub-rushing defensive end Tully Banta-Cain tied for the team-lead with 1.5 sacks apiece, as Roethlisberger was often on the run.

Safety James Sanders added the highlight reel play of the night, returning a fourth-quarter interception 32 yards for a touchdown, while the return of safety Patrick Chung -- who had a team-high 10 tackles -- energized the unit.

The Patriots rose up in the red zone, holding the Steelers to field goal attempts on their first two trips inside the red zone to open a 23-3 lead by the end of the third quarter. While defenders were disappointed with the way they closed the game -- the Steelers put up 23 points in the fourth quarter -- they left Pittsburgh feeling good about what they accomplished.

"It was huge," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, who played every snap. "We knew coming off last week the best medicine would be to come in and get a win on the road against a good team."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.