PITTSBURGH - Kevin Faulk acknowledged he was excited when he stepped on the field for warm-ups yesterday. The day he had been waiting for for more than 13 months finally arrived: He would suit up for a game again.
The most-tenured Patriot, the only player who has been on the roster longer than Bill Belichick has been coach, was back on the field after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament in Week 2 last season.
The running back began the season on the physically unable to perform list, and was removed from it as soon as the rules allowed, after Week 6. He practiced twice during the bye week, and in each of the team’s four practices leading up to yesterday’s 25-17 loss to the Steelers, not even appearing on the injury report.
On Saturday, the team announced he had been activated to the 53-man roster, nearly cementing that he’d be in uniform yesterday.
“It was only one moment in warm-ups, and when I put my uniform on,’’ Faulk said of his excitement. “Then it was about helping my team win.’’
Faulk started and had 11 touches - six carries for 32 yards and five catches for 20 more - and also had a blitz pickup on the New England’s first touchdown. He said he made some mistakes, but Tom Brady , for one, was happy to have No. 33 back.
“It’s great. He’s such a sparkplug for our offense, and he does so many things well,’’ Brady said. “For a guy that hasn’t played football in a year, it didn’t look like it. He played hard, he played well. He made some big plays. I’m sure he’s going to be sore tomorrow; he took some big hits. It’s great to have him back.’’
In typical Faulk style, he wasn’t much for talking about his own comeback.
“I had a couple of mistakes out there, but winning the game was the most important thing, and we didn’t win the game,’’ he said.
He also cut a questioner off when New England’s recent success against Pittsburgh was brought up.
“That’s years before, not today,’’ he said. “Today they had success against us. That’s why they call it the Steel Curtain. No matter how previous games went, you still have to play the game on Sundays.’’
Mayo also returns
Linebacker Jerod Mayo returned to the field for the first time since he injured his knee against the Raiders Oct. 2.
“It is good to be back and just be around the fellas and the coaches, but it was too bad under these circumstances,’’ Mayo said.
The defensive captain didn’t play many snaps, but in watching his teammates he said the focus is to move forward.
“It’s just a bump in the road,’’ Mayo said. “These things happen throughout the season. We have to rebound next week.’’
Rob Gronkowski continues to be a reliable target for Brady. The big tight end led all Patriots with seven receptions for 94 yards.
Gronkowski appeared to get in the end zone late in the fourth quarter and said he thought he did enough to get in.
“It was such a quick situation and that was the call,’’ Gronkowski said. “We just have to move on. We needed the timeouts, so you can’t even risk it. That’s what the referee called, and we just moved on.’’
Belichick said he didn’t see enough to throw the challenge flag.
“I thought about it, but there was no evidence to challenge it,’’ he said. “I certainly couldn’t see it from my angle and they replayed the play in the box. There was nothing to tell us.’’
Leading up to the game, there was another image of Gronkowski that caught attention, though Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said yesterday Gronkowski wasn’t asked to apologize for his photo posing with an adult film star wearing his jersey.
During the pregame show on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Kraft said Gronkowski initiated the conversation with owner Robert Kraft , but they weren’t concerned about the photo.
“I think we’ll move beyond this one pretty quick,’’ Jonathan said.
He added that they believe Gronkowski is “a great guy’’ and was just being a 22-year-old having fun during the bye week.
“There was zero malice,’’ Kraft said.
The Steelers defense was determined to play physical against Brady and the New England offense.
“New England likes to make things 7 on 7,’’ Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. “Because they know if they go 7 on 7, they got the best quarterback in the world. So we tried to be physical with them. Throw off some timing if it was possible.
“I think we were able to do that. Some press coverage. Really try to be aggressive in our zones and it worked today.
“You know, it’s not basketball. That’s what we just kept preaching. Turn it into a football game. If it’s basketball, we can’t beat them.’’
By playing man-to-man and pressing New England’s receivers, the Steelers limited Brady to 198 yards passing, sacked him three times, and forced a fumble that led to the game-clinching, fourth-quarter safety.
“That was our approach,’’ linebacker Larry Foote said. “Those guys in the back end, they covered those guys. We did a lot of man-to-man coverage. Made Brady hold the ball and get sacked. They were in those guys’ face.
“Bumping and running. DBs like that, especially our defense. Starts with Ike Taylor and their confidence and swag just go all the way down to the bottom.’’
Clark is certain Brady will be back if the two meet again in the playoffs.
“We got him today,’’ Clark said. “We know that guy is going to go to the lab and be back. We feel like if you want to get to the Super Bowl, this is the team you have to go through.’’
Spikes leads defense
Second-year linebacker Brandon Spikes wore the green dot for the Patriots as he relayed in calls from the coaches to his teammates. Mayo usually has the responsibility but has been out with an injury. Gary Guyton assumed the responsibility in Mayo’s absence until yesterday. “Spikes did a good job,’’ Mayo said. “Obviously everybody wasn’t on the same page on some plays. But it’s just being out there with guys and getting used to each other.’’ . . . There weren’t many positives, but one highlight was in the red zone. The Patriots stopped the Steelers three times in their five trips inside the 20.
When New England cut cornerback Leigh Bodden Friday, the Steelers were even more certain of how they were going to attack the Patriots. Pass and pass some more. “So we knew they’d probably be soft in the secondary,’’ Steelers left tackle Max Starks said. “We just wanted to test that. We had some good results. They have a bunch of veteran, big D-linemen. All 300-plus. So we knew they were planning to stop the run against us so just exploit them over the top.’’
The Patriots’ inactives included a couple of surprises. Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham was a healthy scratch. Cunningham’s playing time has decreased since Week 4 against the Raiders when he played a season-high 16 of 70 snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Against the Jets, Cunningham played eight of 54 snaps and played just two of 74 snaps against the Cowboys. He was a second-round pick last year. Wide receiver Julian Edelman also was a healthy scratch. Edelman had an ankle injury that kept him out against the Jets and Cowboys but didn’t appear on the injury report this week. The other inactives were running back Shane Vereen , linebacker Dane Fletcher , quarterback Ryan Mallett , safety Josh Barrett , and offensive lineman Donald Thomas .Globe correspondent Duane Rankin contributed to this report.