San Francisco 49ers: 5 Keys to Their Win vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Dan MoriCorrespondent IDecember 20, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: 5 Keys to Their Win vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in a very physical, hard fought game, 20-3. The 49ers are now 11-3 and they have the edge over the Saints in the race for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

    The game was marred by two power outages, one that delayed opening kickoff for about 30 minutes and another in the second quarter, which lasted 16 minutes.

    The 49ers were able to overcome these annoyances and a very good Steelers' team. Let's take a look at five key factors that were instrumental in the 49ers' victory.

No. 5: The 49ers' Offensive Line Played Well

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    The San Francisco 49ers' offensive line has had its ups and downs this year. They have played well at times and been horrible at others. On Monday Night Football, the 49ers' offensive line came to play against an aggressive Pittsburgh defense.

    The Steelers employed a multitude of blitzes, and although they did hurry Alex Smith at times, they never sacked him. Along with the offensive line, I must also credit Frank Gore for his outstanding work on blitz pickup.

    In general, the offensive line protected Smith and gave him time to throw. The 49ers employed a lot of quick, rhythm passes. This helped keep the defense off of Smith and also got Smith in sync with his receivers.

    The 49ers did not allow a sack—which is especially noteworthy because Pittsburgh utilized a tough pressuring defense and plenty of blitz packages.

    Frank Gore rushed for 65 yards on 18 carries. That was just enough to make the Steelers' defense honor the run. 

No. 4: The Red Zone Offense Was Better and Scored Two Touchdowns

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    The San Francisco 49ers have had trouble scoring touchdowns from inside the red zone all season. In the 49ers' first drive of the game, they reached the red zone, but were denied the end zone and forced to kick a field goal.

    On the Niners' second drive, they reached the 20-yard line, but were stopped and again and had to kick a field goal.

    The half-time score was 6-0 in favor of the 49ers.

    The 49ers finally scored a touchdown when Vernon Davis made a big play and got the ball down to the one-yard line. Then, a play-action fake enabled Davis to sneak out into the end zone for a touchdown.

    Later, after the 49ers benefited from a Pittsburgh penalty, Frank Gore found the end zone with a six-yard run.

    It was great to see the 49ers convert two red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. They will need to continue doing that in the playoffs.

No. 3: Andy Lee Helped the 49ers with Field Position

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    The San Francisco 49ers won the field position battle as punter Andy Lee had an outstanding game. Lee had six punts at an average of 47.5 yards per punt. His net punting yardage was also 47.5 yards, as Pittsburgh did not attempt a return.

    Lee pinned the Steelers inside their 15- yard line on four separate occasions. The 49ers' defense benefited greatly from the field position advantage that Lee gave them. Punters are often overlooked, but Lee proved his value and was a huge weapon in this game.

No. 2: The 49ers' Pass Rush Came Up Big

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    Early in the game, the Steelers' offensive line did a good job protecting Ben Roethlisberger, who played with a very bad ankle injury. His mobility was virtually nonexistent, but Pittsburgh kept the 49ers off balance with a good mix of runs and quick passes.

    Once the 49ers increased their 6-0 lead to 13-3 late in the third quarter, it became open season on Roethlisberger. 49ers' rookie Aldon Smith constantly pressured Roethlisberger and ended up with 2.5 of the 49ers' three sacks.

    Smith set a 49ers' single season record for rookies with 13 sacks on the season. He and fellow defensive lineman Justin Smith constantly pressured the Steelers' quarterback and pummeled him on virtually every play.

    I was surprised that Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin kept Roethlisberger in the game late in the fourth quarter, when the outcome of this contest was no longer in doubt. He exposed his quarterback to a lot of additional punishment and risked further injury to him.

    The 49ers' were able to get this tremendous pressure on Roethlisberger with their four core pass rushers. This meant they did not have to blitz much and could use the other seven defenders in pass coverage.

    Aldon Smith had his best game as a 49er, and the television crew were comparing him to Charles Haley and Fred Dean—great 49er pass rushers of the past.

No. 1: The 49ers' Defense Came Up with Four Turnovers

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    The San Francisco 49ers' opportunistic defense generated four turnovers in this game. Carlos Rogers had an early interception when the Steelers were driving. That play was critical, as Pittsburgh could have taken a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.

    In addition to Rogers, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown also came up with interceptions.

    In the fourth quarter, the 49ers recovered a fumble when Aldon Smith sacked Roethlisberger and Justin Smith—who was also right there—came up with the football.

    The four turnovers generated by the 49ers' defense were pivotal. The 49ers also did not give up any turnovers, so the plus-four turnover margin was a huge key to the San Francisco win.

    The 49ers now have a league-leading 35 takeaways on the season. Their plus-25 turnover margin for the year also leads the NFL.

The 49ers Currently Own the No. 2 Seed in the NFC Playoff Picture

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    With their victory over the Steelers, the San Francisco 49ers now stand with a record of 11-3. They have reclaimed the No. 2 seed in the playoff race, which brings an all-important bye in the first round of the playoffs.

    The 49ers are currently tied with the New Orleans Saints with identical records, but lead the Saints in the tie-breaker, as they have a better conference record.

    The 49ers hold destiny in their own hands. If they win their remaining two games—against Seattle and St. Louis, they assure themselves of no worse than the second seed. The upcoming game on Saturday will be no picnic, as the Seahawks are playing well.

    Seattle is currently chasing a wild-card berth and need to win to have any chance at making the playoffs. The Seahawks' defense has improved and running back Marshawn Lynch is playing outstanding football.

    The 49ers must be careful not to suffer a letdown after coming off of this emotional win.