Steelers vs. 49ers: 7 Keys to Beating San Francisco

Nick DeWittAnalyst IDecember 15, 2011

Steelers vs. 49ers: 7 Keys to Beating San Francisco

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    When the schedule came out before the 2011 regular season, the Monday Night Football matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers looked like a mismatch. The 49ers were coming off a terrible season and were just starting out with new coach Jim Harbaugh. The Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl appearance.

    Now, the game is matchup of two teams vying for top spots in their respective conferences. Here’s a look at some keys for beating the 49ers.

    For more on this subject, take a look at Joshua Hayes’ piece from earlier in the week here.

Protect Big Ben

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    Usually, this isn’t much of an issue. Ben Roethlisberger gets away from trouble with the best of them. But Roethlisberger’s high ankle sprain will likely limit him to some degree on Monday night. The key for Pittsburgh will be how well he is protected.

    One of the things I noticed in the victory over the Cleveland Browns was how everyone on the offense stepped up once Roethlisberger was hurt. The offensive line made sure he went mostly untouched the remainder of the game and everyone chipped in with good blocks.

    That has to happen again. The Browns defense is no joke and is a top ten unit, but the 49ers boast an even more difficult defense to stop. Keeping the sack totals low will ensure the Roethlisberger can play the whole game. Losing him would be a huge blow to the team’s aspirations for this season.

Working Deep

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    Something that’s been hit or miss lately has been the team’s deep passing game. With the quarterback injured, that gets more dicey, but for now, the Steelers should still be able to work deep routes.

    The 49ers have been very good against teams that throw a lot of short passes. They struggled last week against an Arizona team that boasts Larry Fitzgerald, who can stretch the field. It gets tougher now against a Steelers squad that boasts three deep threats and three possession guys.

    If the Steelers intend to control the clock and run the ball to take the pressure away from Big Ben, they have to show the ability to back off San Francisco’s rush. The 49ers are at their best when they can get five or more guys rushing the pocket. Take that away and the Steelers have a great chance of dominance.

Pass Early, Run Late

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    This may change as the game goes on, but the 49ers are only allowing 70.5 yards per game on the ground. That’s easily the best in the NFL. They’re 18th against the pass, so it looks as though the Steelers wounded warrior will be key in the game.

    Bruce Arians seems to have odd spurts where he decides that the team needs to run the ball to win. This is a bad time for a game like that. Rashard Mendenhall has been okay this season, but he doesn’t have a lot of success against big defensive fronts. That’s what he’s facing on Monday.

    The success or failure of this game is going to come from how well the Steelers adapt their game plan to abandon the run. Short screens, quick slants and other receiver routes that involve quick throws will be a good subsitute. The key will be getting people in space.

    This might be a good game to allow Mendenhall to catch the ball out of the backfield and take off. He has great downhill burst.

Contain the Ground Game

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    What did the Cardinals do last week to help slow San Francisco’s surprising offense? They stopped Frank Gore cold. He gained only 72 yards on 10 carries. This forced Alex Smith to throw the ball more often and the results were not very good.

    Gore is the 49ers best weapon. Despite the emergence of Smith as a relevant quarterback this season, San Francisco is still a running team. When Gore has a big day, the 49ers are nearly impossible to beat. When he doesn’t, they can be forced into mistakes.

    I’m still not sold on Alex Smith as an NFL starter. This will be a huge test for him. Pittsburgh’s defense has been on quite the tear lately, albeit against subpar teams. If he’s forced into throwing a lot of passes, it could make for a very long night for the Red and Gold.

Be Opportunistic

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    The defense has morphed back into 2010 form the last few weeks. They’ve been grabbing turnovers in bunches and playing almost lights out. They aren’t letting teams get into the end zone either. That is why the team has been able to maintain their tie with Baltimore atop the AFC North.

    With the offense likely to suffer slightly due to the injury at quarterback, the Steelers would be wise to continue to be opportunistic on defense. The more turnovers they can force, the more they can control the game, give the offense positive field position and keep the 49ers on ice.

    Alex Smith had a terrible game last week against a defense that’s been so-so this year. Now he faces a top five unit overall and the league’s best pass defense.

    Smith has gotten better at making reads, but he’s still having issues when he gets under pressure. Maximizing the pass rush will be a huge part of this game and could be the key to knocking San Francisco out.

Get Creative

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    It can’t hurt.

    Defensively, the Steelers have been pretty good at mixing it up. Dick LeBeau has the Steelers playing very well with several key players missing chunks of time. He’ll have to do it again without James Harrison, although it seems like Lamarr Woodley could be back.

    Offensively, things are more dicey. The Steelers continue to struggle with red zone offense. My big issue with last week’s game was the way Rashard Mendenhall got four straight touches inside the five. I understand the argument about imposing your will on an opponent, but it obviously doesn’t work.

    Why not give Isaac Redman those touches? Why not throw a pass on first or second down? Mike Wallace looked to be in single coverage on one down and that’s pretty much a gift.

    Getting creative on offense will be greatly important down the stretch and in the playoffs. The Steelers cannot win games by attrition anymore given the current makeup of their backfield. They’re going to lose some flexibility temporarily while Roethlisberger recovers. They need to mix up the packages again and see if that will help.

Take Red Zone Responsibility

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    I hit on this a little bit in the last slide, but I wanted to hammer it home.

    Pittsburgh hasn’t been nearly as good as it could be in the red zone this season. The Steelers do not consistently make use of their weapons. They get vanilla.

    It’s hard to watch. Anyone who wasn’t a little bit hurt inside when they ran four times from a tight package last Thursday was either asleep or didn’t realize what was happening.

    Antonio Brown is very good at working in traffic. So is Jerricho Cotchery. Hines Ward hasn’t lost his ability to catch the ball either. And where has Heath Miller been at the goal line? I’m confused by all of that.

    If Bruce Arians is bent on using a running back, what about a flat pass or a circle route? How about sending the runner up the gut on play action and then throwing him the ball if he doesn’t have to block someone? There are so many ways to counteract a defense, especially out of the jumbo package.