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Dateline SF: Steelers-49ers Preview

As a Bay Area resident, I have watched almost every 49ers (and Steelers) game this year. Based on this experience, I can offer my perspectives on the 49ers and how they might fare against our Steelers in the big Monday Night matchup just nine days from now.

49ers Overview

Although much improved from last year, the 49ers are not as good as their gaudy 10-2 record. Living in the languid NFC West, they have played only four teams with a winning record, beating the Lions (7-5) and Bengals (7-5) while losing to the Cowboys (7-5) and Ravens (9-3). The 49ers combine a talented and aggressive defense with a mediocre but conservative offense. Amazingly, the team leads the NFL in both most takeaways (28) and fewest giveaways (10), which obviously makes them the leader in turnover ratio. As an easy point of reference, think of this team as the 2010 Ravens without the trash talk.

49ers Offense

At least in the Bay Area, QB Alex Smith has created as much controversy as Tim Tebow: some say he is just a game manager, others think he can carry the team to the Super Bowl. At 94.9, Smith’s passer rating ranks eighth in the NFL, just behind Big Ben’s, and he sports an impressive 15-5 TD-INT ratio. He has led four fourth-quarter comebacks this year. On the downside, his decision-making is slow, and his deep passes are inconsistent at best. He lacks foot speed and is not a running threat.

The 49ers wide-receiver corps is middling. Ex-Brown Braylon Edwards is nominally the team’s #1 WR but has been hampered by injuries; after missing last Sunday’s game, he is likely to play against the Steelers. Michael Crabtree is talented but inconsistent; Ted Ginn Jr. is speedy but a poor route runner. (All three are former first-round draft picks.) The team’s best receiver is TE Vernon Davis, the fastest tight end in the NFL, who is tied with Crabtree for the team lead with 48 receptions. The 49ers run a lot of two-TE sets with TE Delanie Walker, who is serviceable as both a blocker and a receiver.

Frank Gore is an above-average RB who excels at finding the hole and bursting through it. The 49ers also rotate in rookie Kendall Hunter, a 5-foot-7 mite who is very quick. The offensive line, led by LG Mike Iupati, blocks well in the running game. The line has problems with pass blocking, however, giving up 13 sacks in the past two games and 34 for the season. The right side, with backup G Adam Snyder and second-year T Anthony Davis, is the weaker side.

The 49ers rank 29th in passing yards, but don’t let that fool you. The team has the fewest passing attempts of any non-Tebow team in the NFL. In yards per passing attempt, the 49ers rank a respectable 11th. Conversely, the team’s vaunted running game ranks only 17th in yards per attempt.

49ers Defense

By any measure, the 49ers defense is one of the elite units in the NFL, along with the Steelers, Ravens, and Texans defenses. The 49ers defense ranks first in points per game, first in fumbles recovered, first in rushing yards per attempt, fourth in total yards, and fifth in opponents passer rating. The defense’s weakest area is pass rush; it ranks only 14th in sacks.

The 49ers play a 3-4, and the strength of the team is the front seven. Ex-Bengal DE Justin Smith is a high-motor Keisel-like player, and both NT Isaac Sopoaga and DE Ray McDonald are stout against the run. Behind these three, the backups are weak.

With all due respect to Laurence Timmons, Patrick Willis is the best inside linebacker in the game. Willis pulled a hamstring last Sunday, however, and his status for the Steelers game is uncertain. The other ILB, Penn State product Navarro Bowman, is a young tackling machine. The OLBs, Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson, are solid tacklers and good in coverage but lack pass-rush skills. On passing downs, the 49ers bring in rookie first-round OLB Aldon Smith, who has 8.5 sacks this year.

In the only significant personnel changes from last year, the 49ers brought in Carlos Rogers (former Redskin) at CB and Donte Whitner (Buffalo) at SS. The veteran Rogers is the team’s best CB but is vulnerable to fast receivers. The nickel back is rookie third-round pick Chris Culliver, and the team has little depth beyond that.

When the 49ers Have the Ball

The 49ers game plan is to use the run to set up the pass. Like most 49ers foes, the Steelers are likely to put eight or more defenders in the box to slow down Gore and Hunter. The 49ers will counter with multiple-TE sets, extra offensive linemen, and even NT Sopoaga lining up at fullback. The Steelers must be prepared for these looks with a "big" package of their own.

If the 49ers get into third-and-long, the Steelers can unleash the pass rush and are likely to get pressures and sacks. If Woodley plays, he could have a big game against RT Davis. The Pittsburgh CBs should have little trouble keeping the 49ers WRs under control. The defense’s biggest problem is likely to be covering Vernon Davis, as the Steelers often having problems with opposing TEs. One option is to station Ryan Clark in the box and have Polamalu shadow Davis at all times, but that removes Troy’s freelance ability from the defense.

When the Steelers Have the Ball

Running on the 49ers will be extremely difficult. By using multiple-TE sets, however, the Steelers can keep 49ers pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith off the field. Even if Ben is hobbled by his ankle injury, this should keep the pressure off and allow him to find open receivers. If the 49ers double-cover both Wallace and Brown, it will open up running lanes. If either Wallace or Brown are in single coverage, Ben should take a deep shot. Alternatively, the Steelers should have success with four-WR formations, as the 49ers do not have enough competent CBs to cover Wallace, Brown, Ward, and Sanders/Cotchery.

Summary

The Steelers run defense, which is not as good as in recent years, will be tested by the persistent 49ers running game. But if the 49ers are forced into passing situations, they will find it difficult to score. Despite the 49ers strong defense, the Steelers talented passing game should be able to drive the ball and put up points. The key to a Steelers victory will be to avoid turnovers against the #1 takeaway team in the league.

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