Forget the score or the stats. This was one of those rare regular season games that we’ll remember forever. It had absolutely everything, including:
— A 49ers defensive performance that featured so many turnovers and big hits, by the time the 49ers finally scored a touchdown the Steelers seemed like they had lost their will to compete — especially on offense (even though Pittsburgh out-gained San Francisco 389-287 in total yards).
— Red zone touchdowns!
— Aldon Smith body-slamming Ben Roethlisberger.
— And BLACKOUTS, BLACKOUTS, BLACKOUTS!
Okay, maybe just two blackouts, but they certainly contributed to this unforgettable game nonetheless. Luckily for the both teams they didn’t have to pull a NASCAR and come back to the Stick to finish the game on Tuesday afternoon, especially since both the Steelers and Niners both play on Christmas Eve Saturday.
This game was phenomenally important for seeding purposes, which means that about 10 minutes after the 49ers finished off their 20-3 win, the team’s focus probably switched to a Seahawks squad that’s scored 99 points over three straight wins and plays pretty well at home.
But unless you’re paid to get the San Francisco 49ers as far as possible in the playoffs, feel free to savor this one for a few days. This victory was a much-needed reminder that the Niners are still the same good team they’ve been all season. No oasis in the vicinity. No frauds here. No, the 49ers are the same team built on great defense, amazing special teams and an offense that takes care of the ball. A few notes first, then we’ll get to how the 49ers did in regard to the five keys I listed on Sunday night…
— David Akers is two field goals away from tying Neil Rackers’ all-time single season record of 40. See, red zone failures aren’t all bad!
— Andy Lee punted 6 times, dropping 4 inside the Steelers’ 20, 2 inside the 10 and 5 inside the 15-yard-line. That’s insane. For the San Francisco Giants fans reading this, Lee’s like the Niners’ version of Sergio Romo.
— Staying with the special teams … hopefully Ted Ginn’s ankle injury wasn’t too severe and he’ll be back soon.
— The offensive line blocked with more precision and ferocity than we’ve seen in many weeks. They sure picked a good time to put those qualities together, and it led to Alex barely getting touched.
— Troy Polamalu is the opposite of overhyped. Man, is he good.
— I called Aldon “future Haley” a couple months ago on Twitter and a bunch of people called me out for speaking too soon. Now Jon Gruden’s saying the same thing on national television.
— Speaking of national television, only someone suffering from a incurable case of “east coast bias paranoia” would admit that the ESPN broadcast crew of Gruden, Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski (well, mostly the first two) were giving the Niners plenty of love all night. Besides a few times after inaccurate throws by Alex Smith, San Francisco’s praises were sung repeatedly.
5 Keys: how’d the 49ers do?
1. Get Vernon Davis going in the first quarter. Alex got the ball in Davis’ hands on the 49ers’ second offensive play, a 7-yard pass with Davis running from right to left. The tight end caught 6 passes on the day for 72 yards to lead the Niners, including 3 catches for 53 yards and the 49ers’ first red zone TD in many moons. So in essence Davis was the man on the Niners’ most important drive since the one that sealed that comeback win in Detroit.
2. No more confusion. Jonathan Goodwin and Bruce Miller had false start penalties, but no delay of game flags. Tempo seemed to be much better at home, now they need to replicate that same crispness on the road.
3. Treat Heath Miller like he’s Rob Gronkowski. Miller did what he usually does, and the probably-a-little-too-large group of Steelers fans got to yell “HEATH” five times with Miller gaining 82 yards.
4. Change things up on defense. I’d have to watch a replay of the game to really know for sure, but from what I remember the 49ers kept things pretty straight-up in terms of their defensive schemes. Roethlisberger, who could barely move, ended up with 330 empty passing yards and 3 interceptions. Turns out the 49ers were probably smart not to get out of what they do well just to spook Big Ben. Roethlisberger’s faulty plant foot and a heavy dose of Aldon in the second half were enough to crush his spirit on Monday night.
5. Don’t freak out. After Roethlisberger completed that 36-yard pass to Mike Wallace on the Steelers’ first series to put Pittsburgh at San Francisco’s 22-yard-line, things looked a little dicey. Then Carlos Rogers saved the day when he stepped in front of yet another route for his 6th INT of the season. Then the Niners’ offense had a totally-Niners kind of drive, 17 plays that led to an Akers field goal.
This game was fun, wasn’t it? The 49ers dominated the big bad Steelers, Candlestick Park foisted her many charms upon an unwilling national audience and Steve Young threw passes to Jerry Rice before the game. It was also comforting to see the 49ers back in the national spotlight, beating a good team and looking like the group we thought we’d see in Baltimore.
That loss to the Ravens started a string of two defeats in three games, leaving some wondering whether the Niners mirage was vanishing and by mid-January we’d be consoling ourselves with comparisons to other recent seasons and coaches. No, this team’s ready to compete for a Super Bowl.