Yes, this was a game where the 49ers finally beat the red-zone blues (well, sort of). But with fewer than 300 yards of total offense (less than Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats), how did the Niners dominate so convincingly?
Defense, baby, defense.
Special teams, baby, special teams.
The Steelers actually outgained the 49ers, 389 yards to 287. Roethlisberger passed for 330 yards versus 49ers quarterback Alex Smith’s 187. Time of possession was also in the Steelers’ favor by around three minutes.
So, what was the difference that made the final score a persuasive 20-3 San Francisco?
First, field position. With gold stars to placekicker David Akers, punter Andy Lee, and their supporting casts.
Statistics on ESPN.com’s game recap show the Steelers started just one of their 11 possessions outside the 20-yard line (and that one was at the 30).
Akers had three touchbacks, and Lee nailed three punts inside the 10-yard line.
So, yes, the Steelers picked up a lot of yardage. But they also had a lot of ground to cover. Which brings up the second key to this win—tough and timely defense.
Start with three interceptions by Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown. All snuffed out Steelers drives, with Brown’s pick coming at the two-yard line on a would be home-run ball by Roethlisberger.
Add to that a Roethlisberger fumble recovered deep in Pittsburgh territory by All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith, and you have four Steelers' turnovers to none by the 49ers.
The defensive game ball, though, has to go to Aldon Smith. The rookie linebacker from Missouri had two and a half sacks, and was in on four tackles. He humiliated his opposite number, eight-year veteran Max Starks, and had ESPN analyst John Gruden raving all night.
On the offensive side of the ball, Smith was effective at 18-of-31 and a touchdown. He spread the ball among six receivers, but his favorite was tight end Vernon Davis, who caught six passes for 72 yards and the sole passing TD.
The score came on a spectacular play-action fake that left Davis uncovered in the end zone for an easy six points.
As much as I love to see Vernon Davis get the ball, my offensive cap-tip goes to the O-line. Much maligned this season (by me as often as anybody else), the line gave up exactly zero sacks to the heavy and frequent Pittsburgh blitz.
All week long, media types were asking how the line would hold up. On Monday night, they got their answer. In the blitz department, Pittsburgh got zilch.
Now the 49ers have proven they can beat a quality team and score from the red zone. But it isn't over yet. This Saturday they take on the Seattle Seahawks, who are suddenly at .500 and sniffing the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints are home against the playoff-hungry 9-5 Atlanta Falcons, who share the wild-card driver’s seat with the Detroit Lions. The Falcons need to win out to assure themselves of a playoff spot. They will be eager to avenge their 26-23 loss to New Orleans in Week 10.
If San Francisco is to keep pace with the Saints for a first-week playoff bye, then they will need to take care of business against a highly motivated Seattle team. A defensive performance like they turned in Monday night will be a good start.