Steelers vs. 49ers: 5 Things We Learned from San Francisco's 20-3 Win
After the game, in his press conference, Jim Harbaugh praised the play of Alex Smith. It should be said that the 49ers’ 20-3 win over Pittsburgh presented to the world the wonders of San Francisco’s football team, among them:
- Very good pass defense
- Refreshing success in the red zone
- The magic that's Aldon Smith
- And the return of Vernon Davis to the offensive gameplan
All of these were key reasons for the win (as was the gimpy right ankle of Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback). At one point after halftime, Smith was 11-for-23 for under 100 yards. And then he proceeded to hit five straight passes to lead the Niners on a key touchdown drive in the third quarter.
It was very good play, and it was crucial. But it doesn’t even come close to providing a foundation for this Harbaugh postgame comment:
“I think Alex Smith should go to the Pro Bowl.”
How could the man say that with a straight face? But that’s Harbaugh.
It shows how locked in Harbaugh is with this team. It's also a sign that he’s just a little loopy when it comes to all things Scarlet and Gold. Most likely he’s promoting his players full speed ahead despite the fact that Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees play in the NFC. And that means Alex Smith will have to buy a ticket to get to Honolulu.
That willingness to go all in for his players, though, says a lot about the mindset of the 49ers.
From that, here are five things we learned in the 20-3 win.
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There were lots of things to ponder. Like how does a team gain 389 yards on offense and come away with only three points? For that matter, how does a team gain just 287 yards and beat one of the best teams in the AFC by a rather handy score?
It’s more than the four turnovers.
First, it has to be said that the San Francisco Bay area has the best kickers in the game. Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler might be the best in their respective trades, field goals and punters. But David Akers and Andy Lee of the 49ers are a close second.
Four times, the 49ers were able to pin the Steelers inside their 15 thanks to Lee’s punts and good coverage. That accounts for the yards the Steelers gained. They gained most of it on their side of the 50. And for all their work, they were 0-1 in the red zone (and that came on their first possession, which ended in a Carlos Rogers interception.
The Steelers had a better average per run, and thanks to Roethlisberger (seven), posted a 305-187 advantage through the air, but three interceptions negated much of that yardage.
That’s why football coaches shrug when teams are rated by yards rather than points. Yards don’t bring W's.
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Alex Smith (11) ended the game with 18-of-31 for 187 yards and a TD. That’s a yawning six yards per attempt, and his rating was 86.4.
In contrast, Roethlisberger was 25-of-44 for 330 yards, but his three interceptions and no TDs left him with a 52.3 rating.
But that still played secondary to this: Zero sacks by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Smith wasn’t touched, and the Steelers used a variety of blitzes. Many of them did their job, such as when Troy Palomalu’s rush forced Smith to misfire on a goal-line throw to Frank Gore. But for a team that had given up 18 sacks in its previous three games, that zero was a huge improvement.
The solid offensive line play helped the Niners to a 4-of-13 conversion rate on third down, a slight improvement on their season average. The rush game of 100 yards total on 30 tries was adequate. But for all that, it added another key factor in the team’s success: No turnovers.
In his postgame comments, Steeler coach Mike Tomlin pointed out that the Niners played their game, which is to say they played well out front. Which was true. They never trailed in the game. But as 49er fans learned last week in Arizona, two promising first-half drives ended with field goals, and that seemed to portend trouble.
This time, good play from the offensive line created the time for Smith to hit Vernon Davis on two key third-quarter throws, leading to another short toss to Davis for a TD and a 13-3 lead.
Outside the Numbers
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Michael Crabtree broke free in the second quarter, and Smith’s pass ended five yards out of bounds. Granted, Smith is the league leader in least interceptions, and that throw had no chance of being intercepted, but that was an opportunity missed. And it’s not the first one this year.
The throws down the field and outside the numbers are the toughest to make. And who are the best? Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. With the playoffs looming with games against first-rate offenses like those in Green Bay, New Orleans and Atlanta, missed opportunities like that can haunt a team for a long time—like, say, until the next training camp.
49er fans may bitch about Smith’s missed opportunity in the first quarter. He was trying to find Kyle Williams in the end zone, and the ball went low and behind Williams. After seeing a replay of the play from near ground level from the back of the end zone, I believe that Smith did the right thing.
He sensed the presence of linebacker James Farrior, who jumped to deflect the pass. He threw away from the defender. It was incumbent on Williams to lay down in that hole in the end zone.
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The power outages that created two long delays—one right before kickoff, one in the second quarter—seem just a tad too convenient in light of the fact that the Niners are deep in the early stages of trying to get a new stadium built in Santa Clara. But that stadium won’t be ready until 2014 or 2015.
The trouble Monday night seemed to originate in a transformer outside the stadium. One blew up about 12 minutes before kickoff, and that led to the first delay. And somehow, the system got working again, only to fail midgame.
For those who do not live in the Bay Area, two things come to mind. First, Candlestick is the the third-oldest stadium in the league behind Soldier Field (oldest) and Lambeau Field (second-oldest). But Lambeau has undergone numerous remodelings; it’s as nice as any stadium in the league.
Candlestick is a former baseball park, and it’s more than 50 years old. It's in desperate need of either a major remodeling or a wrecking ball. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, tonight was the 34th Monday Night Football game at Candlestick Park, the most MNF games at any NFL stadium.
But something tells me this might be a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) problem. This is the local power company that had one of its large pipelines explode in San Bruno, causing a major fire in a neighborhood where several people died.
The team released a statement about investigating the source of the outage. But it’s not something the team wants because with a young team that seems ready to assume a spot as one of the best in the league, that means more national TV games at night.
Having the lights stay on is essential for that to happen.
Did Well in Prime Time
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The 49ers have been somewhat of a mystery team to many people across the nation. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, and they ranked as one of the league’s worst since then.
This year was expected to be about the same, which is why most of their games were rarely on national TV. Even their Thursday night game in Baltimore was on the NFL Network, which isn’t an included channel on many cable networks.
Thus, many NFL fans around the country have never seen why the 49ers currently hold the second seed in the playoffs. What did they see?
An old stadium that can’t stay lit.
A defense that forced four turnovers. A defense that hasn't allowed a rushing TD in 14 games, which is a record.
Said Harbaugh afterward, "Also want to recognize our defense. NFL record, in the history of the NFL, not allowing a rushing touchdown for (the first) 14 games (of a season). I think that is huge. All credit to our guys on the defense for that and our coaches and all those men. Congratulations to [LB] Aldon Smith, too. Setting a (49ers) rookie record (for sacks in a season). There might be some other ones that I don’t know about. Biggest thing is just really proud of our team. Great win.”
But also a defense that got to play against a limited Ben Roethlisberger, whose sore ankle limited his mobility. It also affected his accuracy as he could not step into the throws.
The 49ers recorded four takeaways on the day (three INTs, one FR), giving the team a league-high 35 takeaways on the season. The 49ers plus-25 turnover differential also ranks first in the NFL.
They saw in the first two quarters a precise though limited offense that made two long marches down the field, with both ending in field goals.
They saw Aldon Smith (99), a rookie who just turned 22, get 2.5 sacks to give him 13 on the year. He's fifth in the league, not bad for a player selected in the first round but was packaged by GM Trent Baalke as someone whose age meant he might not develop into his full capability for another year or two.
And they saw Justin Smith (94) add to the harassment of Roethlisberger. They didn’t get to see Patrick Willis, arguably the team’s best player, and perhaps, the league’s best linebacker.
They didn’t see too much of the power or “Hammer” packages of added offensive linemen. They didn’t see any tackle eligible passes or fake field goals. They saw simple field position football: first-down oriented with minimal mistakes on offense to go along with special teams that made the Steelers look at long fields.
Add in a defense that racked up four turnovers and you could say the score should have been 28-3, which would qualify as a blowout.
Pittsburgh had to make more plays than the 49ers, who didn’t give the Steelers anything easy. It’s a formula that may make it difficult to find lots of highlights for SportsCenter, but it does add up to a way to win a lot of games in January.