FOXBORO -- For the second straight day, linebacker Dane Fletcher was the only player not spotted at Patriots practice as the team practice in full pads in preparation for the Steelers this Sunday at Heinz Field. 

Fletcher was limited in practice and games before the bye week with thumb and hamstring ailments. Offensive lineman Marcus Cannon particpated in a full padded practice for the first time after working out with the team in shirts and shells on Tuesday. Cannon, a rookie out of TCU, was treated this spring and summer for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

FOXBORO -- Speaking for the first time since he was photographed with an adult film star over his bye-week break, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said he met with Robert Kraft and apologized for any bad publicity that resulted from the two pictures seen on Twitter. 

Six games into the season, the Patriots’ core has started to take shape, but there remain a handful of positions that are in a state of flux. Even as a key stretch of the schedule begins Sunday against the Steelers, there are positional battles being fought on both sides of the ball. Here are five different situations that bear watching over the next few weeks:



FOXBORO -- Offensive lineman Marcus Cannon was on the practice field for the first time on Tuesday as the Patriots began on-field preparations for the Steelers this Sunday in Pittsburgh. Cannon's story is an inspirational one as he was treated this spring for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and was fifth-round pick out of TCU. 

Bye Week Report Card time and we'll start with a question:

Is this team going 14-2 again?



KIRK MINIHANE

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Speaking on his weekly appearance on The Dennis & Callahan Show Tuesday morning, Tom Brady responded to a question regarding the photos of tight end Rob Gronkowski with adult film star Bibi Jones. Jones tweeted photos of the two, including the message, "Getting hyped with @RobGronkowski ;)" along with images of the 20-year-old wearing the Patriot player's jersey. (To see the photos click here.)

In the NFL, the stretch between mid-October and Thanksgiving is a weeding out process that separates the contenders from the pretenders.



Patriots coach Bill Belichick, in his weekly appearance on The Big Show, said that the overall conditioning of Albert Haynesworth has not been an issue in the defensive lineman's relatively limited playing time, instead suggesting that injuries have impacted his game readiness.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday linebacker Jerod Mayo is “definitely getting better” in the wake of a left knee injury that sidelined him during a Week 4 win over the Raiders.

Speaking on a conference call with reporters, Belichick praised Mayo’s dedication, saying the defensive captain “works hard,” and sounded optimistic about Mayo’s chances. The linebacker took part in the last three practices before the team broke for the bye week, and could potentially return for Sunday’s game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, in an interview on The Big Show, said that Patriots coach Bill Belichick will remain in charge of the team for "the foreseeable future." While he declined to get into specifics of the coach's contract, Kraft made clear that the Patriots have no intention of moving away from a man whom he called the best coach in NFL history.