The 49ers punched their ticket to the playoffs two weeks ago with a 26-0 win over St. Louis.
In most other scenarios, Pittsburgh’s 10-3 record and four-game win streak would have them primed for a playoff spot, but they are tied with Baltimore in the AFC North and are dealing with Ben Roethlisberger’s sprained ankle.
Roethlisberger has missed significant practice time all week and could be sidelined for a start due to injury for the first time in two years. Backup Charlie Batch is expected to start if Roethlisberger doesn’t get the green light.
On defense, LB James Harrison will be out after being suspended a game for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns QB Colt McCoy last week.
Their absences, along with injuries to S Troy Polamalu and C Maurkice Pouncey, actually do not bode well for the San Francisco 49ers.
For a core group with practically no playoff experience, the 49ers could have benefited from a late-season meeting with a healthy threat like the Steelers. As impressive as their turnaround with Jim Harbaugh has been, they actually haven’t proven themselves enough at key moments this season.
Their signature wins on the year are at then-5-0 Detroit and home against then-6-2 New York Giants. Big wins for sure. But they haven’t really plucked those seeds of doubt from our minds as to whether they are as good as their record indicates.
Even after breaking Romo's rib, the 49ers allowed him to beat them in overtime.
San Francisco is in the lower half of the league in pass defense, and Roethlisberger presents an obvious challenge through the air. I want to see the 49ers go up against Roethlisberger and find out where they stand, even if it means losing.
LB Patrick Willis is expected to miss Monday’s game and will again be replaced by Larry Grant. He performed well in relief against St. Louis and Arizona, but he’s never seen significant time against a quarterback like Roethlisberger.
The entire 49ers defense will naturally take a different mentality into a game against Charlie Batch than they would have against Roethlisberger. Batch is 37 years old and just doesn’t exhibit a strong level of confidence.
On offense, the 49ers have looked anemic recently and really struggle in the red zone. Frank Gore had a great stretch in the middle of the season with five straight 100-yard games, but he has since gone five more games with no more than 88 yards rushing.
Alex Smith has been the “game manager” all season to mostly effective results, but he is not helped by a free pass around a defender like James Harrison.
The suspended Steelers linebacker is scary, hungry and out for quarterback blood at all times.
Smith not only needs that fear pumped into him, he needs to be able to respond to it and make plays. With Harrison out, we simply don’t know if Smith is ready for that next stage of pressure which the playoffs will be dishing out.
Pittsburgh’s stout defense will still test the 49ers, but a presence like Harrison is difficult to replicate.
Under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, the battle will be a defensive one. These are the two best overall defenses in the league. With the Steelers bringing pressure, Alex Smith will need to get rid of the ball quickly if he wants to move the team downfield.
Ultimately, the absence of Roethlisberger will allow San Francisco a greater opportunity to win. It will help their first-round bye chances, but the playoff measuring stick Roethlisberger represents will be noticeably absent.