Regardless of how you feel about James Harrison's one-game suspension, the fact is that he will miss the Pittsburgh Steelers' toughest remaining game on their schedule. Not only does Pittsburgh have to travel across the country to San Francisco, but they also have to shut down one of the league's best rushing attacks without one of their best run defenders.
The 49ers are not 10-3 by accident. They have won with a strong running game and outstanding defense. With a raucous prime-time crowd, Pittsburgh will have an uphill battle as it attempts to stay in the race for the top seed in the AFC.
Pittsburgh may already be without some of its top players with Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley all suffering from leg injuries. Now Harrison has been added to that list after being handed a one-game suspension.
I understand why Harrison was suspended, but I do not agree with it. However, none of that matters come Monday night when No. 92 is not breathing down Alex Smith's neck.
The bottom line is that Pittsburgh has to play without one of its best defenders, and that should be the top concern right now—not whether or not Harrison's suspension was an appropriate penalty.
Pittsburgh's defense has not exactly lived up to its pass rushing reputation. It only has 30 sacks for the season with 17 of those coming from Harrison and Woodley.
As it stands, Harrison and his eight sacks will be out. That has to be a huge confidence boost to a struggling 49ers offense, particularly Smith who will not have to worry about facing one of the most ferocious defenders in the league.
Which outside linebacker can the Steelers least afford to play without?
There is a chance that Woodley plays, which would be a huge boost to the defense, but the last time he tried to come back, Woodley left after experiencing tightness in his hamstring. Though he may start on Monday night, he may not be able to finish the game.
If Woodley is unable to go that means the Steelers will have to start Jason Worilds on one side and slide Lawrence Timmons to the other side. Larry Foote and James Farrior would start on the interior.
Worilds has three sacks the past two weeks but has yet to display that he can be dominating, let alone consistent. Meanwhile, Timmons has yet to record a sack this year.
Besides losing out on the pass rush, Pittsburgh will take a big hit in its run defense.
Ranked as the sixth best in the league, the run defense has not played up to its usual high standards. This could be particularly troublesome against a very good running team.
Though it would be a stretch to call Worilds and Timmons soft, they do not exactly present the physical matchup problems that Harrison and Woodley do.
When taking Polamalu's injury into consideration as well, the Steelers defense will no be anywhere near top form. Having Harrison on the field was almost necessary for Pittsburgh to have at least one dominating presence in the game.
Despite losing two of its last three, San Francisco must be feeling pretty good right now, and Pittsburgh's challenge got that much tougher this week. Will it be too tough to overcome? If we have learned nothing else, the Steelers can thrive on adversity, and they will certainly face some adversity this week.
Not having Harrison on the field will hurt the Steelers chances, but the NFL felt that he knocked out one player too many. The biggest knockout blow this week, though, came to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Lets hope they can get up from it.
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