Steelers vs. 49ers: 10 Things for Steelers Fans to Watch for in San Francisco

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIDecember 13, 2011

Steelers vs. 49ers: 10 Things for Steelers Fans to Watch for in San Francisco

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    On Monday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers battle the San Francisco 49ers in a rare showdown between two modern era NFL heavyweights.

    With 11 Lombardi Trophies and 13 Super Bowl appearances between the two squads, both franchises are looking to add to their total in the upcoming NFL playoffs.

    For San Francisco, an unpredictable trip to the Super Bowl in coach Jim Harbaugh's inaugural season would be greatly aided by a bye week in the NFC playoffs.  As it stands, the 49ers and New Orleans Saints share a 10-3 record.

    While the 49ers are assured a home playoff game by winning the NFC West, the Steelers face a more stark reality: Any slip-up will likely cost them a shot to win the AFC North.

    In a race with their rivals, the Baltimore Ravens travel to San Diego and Cincinnati in the coming weeks.  This gives Pittsburgh some hope for truly being the "Steal City," taking the AFC North Championship from Baltimore despite having been swept in the season series.

    With stakes so high, the stage is set for a very marketable Monday Night Football game.

    How will Ben Roethlisberger fare on his injured ankle?

    Can the Steelers play a clean road game and, after traveling across the continental United States, avoid the woes that tend to coincide with long-distance trips?

    Will the 49ers stave off New Orleans in an effort to ensure their being one home win from the NFC Championship Game?

    With so many questions to be answered, tension should be rife for this inter-conference battle.  These are 10 things Steelers fans should watch for during the road trip to California.

Getting to the Improved Alex Smith

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    UPDATE: As of 11:00a on Tuesday, December 13, 2011, sources are indicating that James Harrison will be suspended by the NFL for one game due to last week's hit on Colt McCoy

    In a true mark of his amazing influence, coach Jim Harbaugh can proudly call Alex Smith a personal reclamation project. 

    NFL circles viewed Smith as a draft-bust-turned-outcast, temporarily riding the coattails of the league as a backup quarterback (at best) until a coach with good sense got rid of him.  Coaches and other influences came and went, but Smith never found his NFL niche.

    The junior Harbaugh boy came to the Bay, and boy did it ever pay!

    Smith has posted a quarterback rating of 91.5 this season, throwing for 15 touchdowns and only five interceptions. 

    With the running game playing well and the defense reinvigorated, many fans' early responses spoke to Smith's "game managing," implying the quarterback was essentially keeping his hand on the wheel and only there to avoid mistakes.  As I watched NFC Playbook on NFL Network in the early season, they showcased the short and intermediate throwing of Smith, noting the plays were designed to keep him throwing high percentage passes and avoiding mistakes.

    Harbaugh responded:

    That offends my sports sensibility, to call a quarterback a game manager. There's a manager in baseball, but if you're going to make a football analogy, a player to another sport like baseball, then the quarterback's more like the pitcher. That just offends my sports sensibility.

    In fact, a look at Smith's numbers show a quarterback with a reasonable average of 7.1 yards per attempt.  While the 49ers do utilize the run more often than the pass, statistics would indicate the training wheels are not on Smith when he is asked to pass.

    While training wheels may not have been on the quarterback, the Ravens showed that handcuffs can be placed on the 49ers offense with pressure.  This is true for almost any NFL offense, but Baltimore was one of the few heavy contenders San Francisco has faced to date.  As such, its success at getting hits and sacks on Smith throughout Thanksgiving night leaves a blueprint for other teams to look at in their preparations. 

    The Ravens sacked him nine times, including four on the quarterback's first nine dropbacks.

    Can James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and crew give Smith the same kind of fits?  With a very balanced offensive approach that clearly depends on getting positive yardage on early downs, the Steelers will benefit greatly by forcing third-and-long against the improving signal-caller.

    Smith is deceivingly athletic, adding to the challenge.  Also, he looks like Aaron Rodgers from an angle.  OK, OK....

    Smith may be improved, but Aaron Rodgers he is not. 

Special Teams X-Factors: Ginn and Brown

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    Antonio Brown and Ted Ginn, Jr. have boosted their teams to important victories via special teams. 

    Steelers fans were delighted to watch Santonio, Jr. (my current nickname for the rising receiver) finally break loose on a punt return against the Cincinnati Bengals, extending Pittsburgh's lead to 28-7 before halftime in Week 13.

    And, how can 49ers fans forget Ginn's thrilling opening day contributions?  His special teams outburst was the stuff of legend, and his final punt return put the nail in the Seahawks' proverbial coffin, 33-17.  It was his second return touchdown of the afternoon.

    While Pittsburgh is optimistic about the big play potential Brown brings to the return game, Ginn has been phenomenal in 2011.

    He leads the league in returns of more than 20 yards. He averages nearly 29 yards per kick return, ranking second among qualified returners.  Likewise, his average punt return of more than a dozen yards is good enough for fourth place in the NFL.

    Either player is able to completely change the momentum of a contest with their raw athletic ability.  With so much focus on offense, defense and avoiding turnovers, special teams is often lost in the conversation.

    One great return can win or lose a close game.  Watching these two explosive returners who don't get the press of the "Hess" (Hester) will be a delight.

Mutual Red-Zone Woes

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    A concern voiced amongst many fans and experts in the Steel City about red-zone production is warranted.  In fact, the ability of Pittsburgh's talented offense to convert drives into points is potentially the one area that the Steelers need to focus most.

    In a game that features two great defenses, an offense in San Francisco that is unproven against the league's elite teams and a Steelers squad that struggles on the road, points could be at a premium.  That makes every drive into the "gold zone" that much more important.

    However, for every nutty writer that goes off on a tangent about red-zone production in the Steel City (click the link above), there is a fan in San Francisco asking, "What is your problem?"

    The Steelers have converted 52.27 percent of their red zone visits into six points, ranking 17th in the National Football League.

    So, what about the 49ers?  They rank 32nd with a conversion rate of...

    It's actually a bit embarrassing to simply state, so it's only fair to have you work out the number by yourself:

    Take one bazillion, multiply it by 10,000, divide that by 50, add 14, multiple that number by zero and add 35.56 percent.

    Or, check out the red-zone listing for yourself!

The Black and Gold's Black and Blues: How Did Rest Help Key Injuries?

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    There are a number of key injuries that will be monitored by fans on both sides.

    Ben Roethlisberger will return to the field after 10 days of healing for a severe high ankle sprain that had all the makings on film of a season-ending injury.  After spending 30 minutes with their collective hearts in their throats, Steelers fans will spend Monday night with their fingers crossed for the quarterback's health.

    Protecting Roethlisberger is vital, and part of that responsibility falls to center Maurkice Pouncey, who suffered through the same injury against the Browns.  Assuming he is able to start, the position requires a great deal of strain on the ankle, making it a difficult injury to combat for a lineman.

    If Pouncey is still bothered by the injury, Pittsburgh must think about how to shuffle the offensive line.  Frankly, Chris Kemoeatu has been far too much of a liability to even consider starting in a game of magnitude.

    Lastly, LaMarr Woodley should return, and his presence will hopefully give the Steelers defensive front a pass-rushing charge that it has shown with him in the lineup previously.  Despite time missed, Woodley still leads the team with nine sacks. If the hamstring is still bothering him, his presence is most vital in the playoffs, but the sooner he can make an impact in this tight AFC race, the better!

Frank Gore and the 49ers Running Game

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    Frank Gore is easily one of the most underrated talents of this NFL generation. 

    He played on losing teams on the West Coast, and those squads would feed him the ball in workhorse fashion.  All the offense had to work with, Gore would grind to a halt, and injuries had kept him hampered in recent seasons.

    While he has had medical issues in recent seasons, any Steelers fan is still more than willing to claim Troy Polamalu as the game's best safety and Sidney Crosby as the NHL's best player.  One can at least be reasonable enough to give Frank Gore his due.

    Once again, Gore has been a beast in 2011.  He had five straight 100-yard games earlier in the season, and his 1,054 yards come with an average-per-rush attempt of 4.6 yards.  The discounted back, like the quarterback who was written off, has come alive with his talent for the 2011 49ers.

    While the Steelers defense will need to stop the run game to make the 49ers offense one-dimensional, there is a chance that Gore could see fewer carries.  Injuries have his game status as questionable for the moment. 

    Most fans, including myself, expect Gore to see starting action in the contest.  The number of rushing attempts for Gore is an issue that can be debated.

    Second on the 49ers lineup with 82 attempts for 322 yards is rookie Kendall Hunter from Oklahoma State.

Steelers Run Game vs. 49ers' Stingy Run Defense

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    Attention, Steelers fans: Do the following stats related to run defense look familiar?

    3.2 yards per attempt and 70.5 yards per game.

    Steelers fans should vividly recall such figures.  After all, Pittsburgh normally ranks among the best NFL teams at stopping the run with similar totals.

    In 2010, as a comparable example, Pittsburgh allowed only 62.8 yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry.

    The 1976 Steelers surrendered 3.2 yards per carry.

    Considering their history, it is obvious the numbers at the top belong to the 2011 Steelers run defense, right?

    Wrong!

    Bask in the glow of the impressive figures of the 2011 San Francisco 49ers, the NFL's most stingy rush defense.

    San Francisco is allowing 15 fewer rushing yards per game than the next best run defense, and its 3.2 yards per carry surrendered is only approached by Baltimore's 3.3 yards allowed.  Make no mistake that the 49ers are sticking opponents on the ground with Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and the boys getting their tough on!

    With a running game that has lacked consistency, it will be interesting to see how the Steelers offense balances.

    Can it run effectively on Monday night?  Will the offensive line provide lanes for Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall to inflict any damage?

    It seems that it will be tough sledding for Pittsburgh backs, who need to stay positive and prepare for a physical night.

Steelers Receivers vs. the 49ers Secondary

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    Corner Carlos Rogers leads the 49ers with 15 passes defensed and five interceptions.  Playing alongside him in the 49ers secondary will be Tarell Brown, with Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner rounding out the defensive backfield at the safety positions.

    Of note, Goldson is tied with Rogers, having intercepted five passes.

    With a secondary that has been playing well, the 49ers will have a stiff test against the Steelers receiving corps.  While the Pittsburgh running game against the San Fran defensive front seems to be a mismatch in the 49ers' favor, the passing attack could prove to be the ultimate equalizer, provided the offensive line doesn't completely negate progress time and again (more on that on the next slide).

    Still, the San Francisco secondary cannot be taken lightly.  Just ask Eli Manning, whose Giants lost their first of an eventual five straight games during a contest that saw Rogers intercepting two key passes.

    Most likely, Rogers will see extensive time pairing against Mike Wallace, the explosive receiver many regard as the fastest player in football.

    While Wallace stands the chance of another mediocre receiving day, the focus on deadly No. 17 certainly opens up passing room for other ball retrievers.

    Jericho Cotchery.  Antonio Brown.  Hines Ward.  Heath Miller.  Emmanuel Sanders (remember him?).

    Preparing for these rockets at receiver would be a headache for anybody.  Any down or distance is fair game for the most explosive group of receivers in team history. 

The Perfect Storm Challenge: Prime-Time Road Game Against Great Defenders

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    The Steelers have struggled to play well on the road this season.  Additionally, prime-time games against inferior opponents have translated to Black and Gold headaches. 

    Translated to Monday night, a game against a 10-3 San Francisco team will require a changing of the prime-time and road-game guards.

    The offensive line has been abysmal away from Heinz Field, taking holding penalties, roughness violations and false starts at seemingly the worst possible moments.  How many times has the team driven inside of the opponents side of the field only to stall?

    Communication between Roethlisberger and his linemen/receivers has to be clear, no matter how unorthodox or patchwork the units may become.  It has been clear the offense has struggled to get into the flow of games away from the comforting confines of home; ironically, those same issues on Monday could result in the Steelers having to play away from home in the playoffs.

    The 49ers have 18 interceptions in 2011, along with 18 forced fumbles and nine recoveries.  Their 10-3 record despite any wholesale changes speaks volumes about Jim Harbaugh's ability as a coach, but it also indicates a team that is finding ways to get momentous plays at opportune time. 

    With an effort like the one shown against the Chiefs, a sloppy victory in Arrowhead Stadium, the Steelers will fall to 10-4 and likely lose the AFC North.

    Beyond the road-game and prime-time struggles, the line has had issues against superior talents, such as Mario Williams and Dwight Freeney, all season.  While Patrick Willis could miss time due to injury (though it's unexpected), Larry Grant has stepped in nicely at linebacker in reprieve of Willis.  He recorded 11 tackles against the Cardinals last week after making six tackles and a sack versus St. Louis.

    From NaVorro Bowman to Patrick Willis and in between, the 49ers defensive front has been handling offensive lines all season.  Another pathetic showing for the Steelers hogs cannot happen.

The Turnover Teams

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    In 2011, the 49ers and Steelers can both be labeled "Turnover Team."  Yet, the reason for the nickname is different for both sides.

    Speaking to its level of talent, Pittsburgh has been able to overcome a turnover differential of minus-seven in building a 10-3 record.

    With that type of output, there is no doubt San Francisco would be sporting a mere shell of its 10-win record. 

    Instead, Jim Harbaugh's surprising NFC West Champions (already secured in Week 13) have a turnover differential of plus-21, essentially putting the two opponents on opposite ends of the spectrum.  The plus-21 marker is tops in the NFL.

    Having suffered through many years of losing, the 2011 49ers are clear proof that responsible, smart play rewards with wins.

    While the Steelers can mostly thank a seven-turnover outing in the opener against Baltimore for their ranking, the team has still shown the type of sloppy play that ultimately led to its Week 1 debacle (a 35-7 loss).  Recently, red-zone turnovers, specifically fumbles, have plagued the team.

    The turnover battle is going to be key in this game, as with any NFL game.  If the trend manifests itself on Monday night, Pittsburgh will have only a slim chance to win despite its talent. 

Two Huge Prime-Time Losses Await Their Week 15 Victims

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    On Sunday Night Football, the Chargers will host the Baltimore Ravens in a pivotal contest for both squads. 

    San Diego will have to win to maintain any hope for a comeback over the Te-Broncos in the AFC West.

    Conversely, Baltimore's edge in the AFC North is a matter of tie-breakers thanks to a season sweep of its regular-season series over Pittsburgh.  With both teams tied at 10-3 overall, any loss could potentially negate the Ravens' advantage and quest for home field in the AFC playoffs.

    Taking this into account, the Steelers will either have an opportunity to surpass Baltimore in the AFC North or keep pace with it on Monday.  In other words, a loss to the 49ers would either nearly knock them out of the division race or prevent them from taking full control of it.

    San Francisco's loss to Arizona was painful, despite being only its third loss of 2011.  With the upsetting defeat, the 49ers now risk falling out of the NFC's second seed and forfeiting a bye week.  A loss to the Steelers would place Harbaugh's surprise squad in jeopardy.

    With so much at stake, it will be an entertaining slate of night caps for football fans across America.  Sure as hell beats Rams vs. Seahawks, doesn't it?

    No pressure, of course.