Despite the claims from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that he was targeted by the 49ers during last season's loss in San Francisco, reviewing the tape from that game and the comments from 49ers pass-rusher Aldon Smith may show that Roethlisberger's claims are completely unfounded.
Roethlisberger made his comments on the Dan Patrick Show when asked about the last time he thought an opposing team was "targeting" him specifically.
I think when we played San Fran, I felt like there were some things going on, some extra. I did have the ankle and I was playing, so maybe there was kind of a bullseye on there anyway.
But one close observer of the NFC West was skeptical about Roethlisberger's claims, and being the diligent reporter that he is, ESPN NFC West blogger Mike Sando went back to the tape of the 49ers' 20-3 win over the Steelers in Week 15 of last season.
What he found on tape went against whatever Roethlisberger thought was occurring from the 49ers sidelines. According to Sando:
The stats crew credited the 49ers with eight quarterback hits. Most were straightforward. Defenders were not twisting Roethlisberger's lower body, rolling over onto his sore ankle or stepping on him blatantly.
Stretches lasting 15-plus plays passed without the 49ers making any contact with Roethlisberger. They did get pressure on him late in the game. Aldon Smith did hit Roethlisberger in the lower body at one point, but the hit appeared routine.
Smith and NaVorro Bowman had free shots on Roethlisberger late in the game. They did not exploit those opportunities at additional expense to Roethlisberger. Bowman specifically had an opportunity to fall on Roethlisberger on the Steelers' final play, but he did not.
Sando mentions Aldon Smith in his review, and the 49ers' 2011 first-rounder didn't waste any time in going on the record to dispel any idea that the San Francisco defense was targeting Roethlisberger's bum ankle in any way.
Keep in mind, Smith was in the Steelers backfield for most of that December night, recording 2.5 sacks and several other (legal) hits on Roethlisberger. Another sack was erased because of a penalty. There was ample opportunity for Smith to target Roethlisberger's highly sprained ankle.
But according to Smith, no such attempt was ever conceived by the 49ers.
From Smith, via 49ers beat writer Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee:
Our goal was to win the game...We don't go out and talk about hurting other players, their ankles or injuries or any of that. We were going out to win the game. The quarterback, he controls the game. So if he got hit, it happens.
Of course, the last part of that statement is what sticks out the most. Quarterbacks are the "target" of every defense. Pass-rushers like Smith are put on the field to get to the quarterback and bring him down.
Was Ben Roethlisberger unfairly targeted by the San Francisco 49ers during a 20-3 loss last season?
Maybe that influenced what Roethlisberger was seeing, mainly because his ankle was as bad in that game as any he played in all season. But outside of that, there's nothing to think that Roethlisberger's bad ankle was targeted in any way by Smith or any of the other 49ers.
Maybe it is nothing more than a convenient excuse for Roethlisberger throwing three interceptions and compiling a 52.3 passer rating in a three-point scoring output.
But Roethlisberger himself should know that he is the main target of all 11 defensive players on the field during every game of every season. Targeting a player to stop and targeting an injury are two very different things.
When push comes to shove, neither the game tape nor the players on the other sideline suggest that Roethlisberger's claim of being unfairly targeted holds any water to the kind of bounties we've seen in New Orleans or elsewhere.