The San Francisco 49ers (10-3) and Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) are both assured spots in the playoffs. However, this meeting feels like a postseason game, and not just because it’s a primetime game between two franchises that are fairly proficient when it comes to winning Super Bowls.
Another Big Easy-breezy win for the Saints on Sunday means the 49ers have to defeat Pittsburgh to keep pace. Pro Football Talk reported that the Steelers were likely to keep Ben Roethlisberger out against the Niners if Baltimore beat San Diego on Sunday night, since the Ravens hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. Alas, the Chargers made Baltimore look like a small rural high school against De La Salle and the Steelers see a chance to propel themselves from the fifth seed to a possible No. 1 seed in the AFC.
And wouldn’t you know, Big Ben wouldn’t miss this game for the world…
Before we get into who’ll win this game and why, one thought: 49ers fans should all go into this game with a deep appreciation for the opportunity Monday night provides. After years of bad football and worse politics, the idea that the 49ers can possibly beat the mighty Steelers and propel themselves to an advantageous playoff position is nothing less than surreal. And the fans who get to attend this game (you lucky bastards) better be loud.
Taking off my Niner beanie and putting on a green plastic visor, how do these teams stack up (NFL ranks in parentheses)?
The 49ers hold the edge in most special teams categories, which isn’t surprising since they lead the league in field goals, kickoff return average and net punting average, but the Steelers aren’t special teams slouches. So when it comes to the stats, here’s the gist: over the course of the season the 49ers have been a little better at running and stopping the run; the Steelers have been quite a bit better than San Francisco at both passing and pass defense.
With Roethlisberger limping around in the pocket, that advantage may be limited … it may not. The Steelers come into this game as 2-point underdogs (according to 5dimes.com), but they probably feel like as long as they stop Frank Gore and can pressure Alex Smith like the Cowboys, Ravens and Cardinals did — without suspended linebacker James Harrison, whose 8 sacks are second on the team to LaMarr Woodley (9) — they should leave the west coast in sole possession of first place in the AFC North.
NFL games are rarely that simple, as anyone who watched Chiefs/Packers on Sunday knows. A strange play, bad call or “broken replay equipment” can change the course of a game or a season. So instead of trying to predict exactly how this game will go, here are five things the 49ers will need to do to keep their hopes of a No. 2 seed alive (besides obvious stuff like winning the turnover battle and not being so lame in the red zone).
1. Get Vernon Davis going in the first quarter. Forgotten man, Mr. VD. And this season, while his blocking has been valuable at times, he tends to disappear if not involved early. With the Steelers missing Harrison there are bound to be some inefficiencies in their pass coverage — it’s up to Alex Smith to get the ball in Davis’ hands in positions where he can run upfield and loosen things up for Gore.
2. No more confusion. The Niners have struggled at times this season coming out of the huddle. Sometimes it seems like they come out too slow, and the lack of time remaining on the play clock forces a clumsy timeout or a delay of game penalty. Last week Ted Ginn looked confused as to where he was supposed to be on more than one occasion. The key is to keep the other team off balance, not your own. This will be a challenge, especially if Joe Staley isn’t activated.
3. Treat Heath Miller like he’s Rob Gronkowski. The Niners wouldn’t dare double-team Miller like the Denver Broncos consistently did with Gronkowski (Aaron Hernandez sure didn’t mind that strategy), but San Francisco can’t focus all their attention on Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown, who’ve combined for almost 2,000 yards this year. If Roethlisberger’s a statue, he’s going to look to his safety net — Miller. Hines Ward, too. This might be an even bigger challenge than No. 2, since Patrick Willis probably won’t play.
4. Change things up on defense. Everyone knows the 49ers to be a straight-up team that stuffs the run and rarely sends extra rushers. It’s a pretty good idea most of the time, especially since the 49ers are so good at playing the field position game. But with Roethlisberger a sitting target the 49ers should make him react quicker than he expects with creative coverage and blitz schemes.
5. Don’t freak out. This game is the latest “BIGGEST GAME OF THE YEAR” for the Niners, and with a jacked-up crowd and a perennial power coming to town there might be a tendency for the upstart 49ers to put every ounce of their being into the first 10 plays of the first quarter. Playing hard is great, but even if things go poorly in the beginning (Roethlisberger completes a deep TD pass in the Steelers’ first series, Smith throws an early INT, etc.) the 49ers need to remain confident. If they jump out to an early lead they can’t relax or get carried away in the crowd’s euphoria. This is a chance for the Niners to prove they belong not just on the same field with Pittsburgh, but on the list of Super Bowl contending teams.
Pick: San Francisco 49ers 22, Pittsburgh Steelers 17