Steelers vs. 49ers: 10 Observations Following the Key Week 15 Loss

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIDecember 21, 2011

Steelers vs. 49ers: 10 Observations Following the Key Week 15 Loss

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    The San Francisco 49ers avoided mistakes and overcame injuries, defeating a Pittsburgh Steelers squad that did the exact opposite. The lopsided contest was reminiscent of the excitement and allure that the Silicon Valley brought to football over a decade ago.  

    Surely, 49ers fans are a bit more reassured about their excitement following their validating 20-3 victory.  Although playing an injured Ben Roethlisberger, the San Francisco defense made big plays, particularly with forcing first-half turnovers and late-game sacks. Likewise, Alex Smith looked to his key playmakers and avoided the costly mistake, putting the game away during two second-half touchdown drives capped off by Vernon Davis and Frank Gore

    While the thrill of victory pulses through California, the Steel City took a huge step backwards in their effort to secure a first-round bye and home field advantage in the NFL playoffs. Suddenly, the AFC North title seems a far reach, and even that wouldn’t guarantee any sort of rest considering the team’s loss to Houston earlier this season. 

    Of more concern to Steelers fans than a division championship is the prospects of playing on the road in January with an injured Ben Roethlisberger. As with other games for the Black and Gold, 2011 has showcased road woes and prime-time pains, a combination that seems ominous headed toward the playoffs.

    Nevertheless, a postseason berth has been secured, and the team boasts enough talent across the board to stay in the Super Bowl XLVI conversation. What do they have to work on to get there? Are these aspirations a legitimate possibility or a mere pipe dream? 

    Here are 10 observations and thoughts following a disappointing Week 15 loss at the mansion that Montana built.

    Disclaimer Regarding Avoided Topics: Whether partly due to rehash or an unhealthy level of ire, I am forfeiting my opportunity to discuss the soft zone coverage, particularly on the outside, that allowed Alex Smith to breathe a sigh of relief on early downs all night.

    Additionally, there will be no reference to Pittsburgh's brutal clock management to end the first half, another in a laundry list of road errors that have plagued the Black and Gold all season.

The State of the Ankle

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    With the opportunity to take first place in the AFC, the Steelers biggest hurdle to this accomplishment was the 49ers. Last night, Steelers Country witnessed this in frustrating fashion.

    While some debate has since incited regarding the duration of time that Ben was left in the game, make no mistake: Roethlisberger had to at least start that football game. For those that disagree, bear in mind that hindsight is 20/20. When you go to the ball, you dance with the lady that brought you! Or, in this case, when you are playing a vital game, you keep your faith in your championship quarterback, even if he’s a mere shell of his normal self. 

    The difference between Ben being called a liability or an iron man after last night would be slim, as always. In Baltimore last season, blood dripped onto his jersey as he led an anemic offensive attack. The defense set the offense up for the winning score, an effort finished by a great catch and run by Isaac Redman. Ben was an iron man.

    Last night, the offense moved the ball on most drives, but they frequently stalled and ultimately scored three points in a double digit loss. Naturally, Ben was a liability.

    Still, he was the team’s best chance to win, three turnovers or not. For his mistakes, he played most of the game fairly well. That sounds like an outlandish claim, but I was stunned with the velocity and accuracy of MOST of this throws.

    And, as for the couple that got away...too bad he was playing the NFL's best team in turnover margin. The 49ers did what they do: capitalized.

    In truth, while some passes sailed on the All-Pro passer, it was clear that he still had the arm strength to maneuver the offense. Unfortunately, his inability to plant on his left foot, a part of the throwing motion that directly correlates to accuracy, caused a few off-target passes missed their targets or worse. Wallace was missed on deep passes, numerous passes were batted into the air, and Ben’s three interceptions could have been five.

    Nevertheless, he was a better option than either backup passer (for real).

    While a healthy Ben would have been a world of difference, the reason for the offense’s self-destruction was not exclusively the quarterback’s bum ankle. The entire unit played another in a series of horrendous road games; unlike their effort in Arrowhead Stadium, where penalties and ill-timed turnovers kept the score close, a superior opponent didn’t allow their errors to go unpunished.

    And, despite his weekly Herculean efforts, Brown’s drop of a potential touchdown pass on the game’s second drive didn’t assist the team in capturing momentum. Roethlisberger would throw his second interception moments later.

    Improving offensive composure will be critical. In the meantime, nothing is more critical then Ben’s health. After all, Roethlisberger’s mobility is a championship asset, plain and simple.

    To simplify recent events and provide a to-do list for upcoming games, see the smart/stupid chart below:

    1. Starting Ben against the 49ers: Smart

    2. Keeping Ben in the game, trailing 20-3: Stupid

    3. Starting Ben against the Rams: Stupid

    4. Starting Ben against the Browns: TBD

    5, Having Ben play 60 minutes against the Browns: Stupid

    6. Doing whatever it takes to help Roethlisberger heal for the playoffs: Smart

    In case the last decade has taught us nothing, the Steelers’ championship aspirations go as Ben goes.

    Any questions?

Californians Know Power Outages Too Well

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    It was an odd backdrop, seeing our Black and Gold heroes only dimly lit by neon advertisement scrolling along the mid-level LCD screens at Candlestick Park. Cameras flashed in the strange dusk.  The brief delay ended when the lights came on after approximately 15 minutes mid-game, and the Steelers and 49ers quickly stretched, warmed up and got back to work.

    While Pennsylvanians watching the game were likely unaffected aside from the unique environment, any time the power goes out in California, many residents naturally reflect on a cruel, frightening era of tilted corporate ethics and capitalistic thinking gone horribly wrong. As a disclaimer, the circumstances were different in this instance, and I'm aware that a transformer blew. 

    And, even if they didn't recall energy abuses from the past, one thing is for certain: Last night's power outage, described by many as "embarrassing" for the 49ers franchise on a prime-time setting, was simply small potatoes.

    Corruption and greed led to a intentional Californian energy crisis in the early 2000's.   Deregulation of such power suppliers caused competing entities to seek unique ways of making a profit from the energy they provided.

    The always "good for a belly laugh" corporation, Enron (who had essentially monopolized the market), actually created artificial shortages, shutting down the power grid in various parts of the state for obscene amounts of time. In the ultimate display of a corrupt market, the supply and demand curve caused prices for energy to skyrocket given the artificial "shortages."

    Beyond the dirty economics, many people were hurt. One can only imagine the need for life-saving machines, temperature control and other daily technologies that we all take for granted being taken away for the sake of a buck.


Alex Smith Is the Perfect Jim Harbaugh Project

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    For a quarterback who has never had the luxury of the same offensive coordinator for more than one season, learning from seven different men in seven professional years, the arrival of Jim Harbaugh was a blessing.

    Able to use his own experiences to help craft the talented Smith, let's be frank enough to say Harbaugh had the perfect pupil. His ego was shattered just enough to make him completely open to suggestion after years of failure, but his talent was supreme enough to warrant being selected as the top pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

    Likewise, his desire to stay in San Francisco showcased a will to turn around his reputation as a draft bust in becoming the signal caller everyone hoped for six years ago.

    While there is work still to be done, it is clear that the newfound stability that has seemingly surrounded Alex is transforming him into a bonafide NFL starting quarterback.

    Last night was a shining example. While his arm didn't elicit any awe from viewers, it was an efficient, little cannon that found a receivers open underneath with an annoying frequency (I'm going to avoid any particular discussion regarding last night's coverage schemes to preserve my own sanity). 

    In key moments, Smith made the plays he needed to make, most notably a throw across the field to Vernon Davis, who had a narrow lead on the Steelers defense toward the left sideline. Throwing across his body, the football was planted perfectly into the tight end's hands, and he barely missed his first touchdown of the night.

    Most importantly, Smith didn't make the critical mistakes that translated to Steelers points or turned the momentum of the game. With the 49ers defense playing so stoutly and Frank Gore having a revival season, Smith mostly has to be serviceable to win games.

    Under the tutelage of Harbaugh and his former Stanford assistant, Greg Roman (the 49ers offensive coordinator), Smith has been more than serviceable. He's played damn well, and with time spent in the system, he will only get better!

    Just don't call him a game manager.

Vernon Davis and Frank Gore Are Great Safety Valves

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    As Alex Smith redeems his NFL career, a great deal of his success is tied to coach Jim Harbaugh. Two other factors are tight end Vernon Davis and running back Frank Gore.

    Vernon Davis is a beastly tight end whose name isn't heard enough amidst talks of Jason Witten and Antonio Gates. Even for his reputation as a premiere player at the position, Davis is all of that and then some. Perhaps he should be the one known as "Ocho Cinco."

    Despite knowing that containing the tight end would have to be a major objective for success, the Steelers defense was unable to keep Vernon from having huge impact. His six receptions totaled 72 important yards in a largely defensive game, and those key catches included a touchdown that put San Francisco ahead by two scores in the fourth quarter. 

    In fact, his score came moments after having an apparent touchdown taken off the board.  Officials felt the tight end stepped out of bounds in his pursuit of the pylon along the left sideline.

    Especially deadly over the middle of the field, Davis is a mismatch for nearly any linebacker assigned to him in pass coverage. Just ask James Farrior.

    Likewise, Frank Gore has been a key contributor to the 49ers offense, rushing for over 1,100 yards and 4.4 yards per carry in 2011. While his average per attempt of barely 3.5 yards and total of 68 yards against the Steelers may seem pedestrian, many of his runs set up manageable down and distances for Smith who capitalized, especially against soft Steelers coverage on the outside.

    While the Steelers defense did a noteworthy job of keeping the running back in check, Gore did make Pittsburgh pay late in the game. After a penalty on a successful field-goal attempt gave San Francisco a first down, Gore punched the football into the endzone from five yards out, effectively ending the competitive phase of Monday night's game.

Punter Andy Lee Was Game MVP

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    On a night where field position would be critical for the Steelers offense, considering their injuries and matchup against the top-ranked NFL defense in points allowed, San Francisco punter Andy Lee made sure that Pittsburgh would have to travel.

    In that regard, Lee was the most valuable player of a defensive struggle that didn't break until the final quarter.

    While the Pittsburgh offense did manage first downs, the field length always proved to be a few yards too far to travel. In fact, Pittsburgh had 20 first downs and converted on 8-of-14 third down conversion attempts, both numbers superior to the 49ers' performance. Additionally, the Steelers averaged more yards per play, passing and running, than San Francisco.

    Still, the longer the distance needed for a score, the greater the odds of an offense to have a setback. Monday night was plagued by such setbacks for the Steelers offense. The distance between Ben Roethlisberger and the endzone afforded the 49ers defense the necessary time to force or receive a Steelers miscue on most drives, including a two-interception first quarter that set a tone for the evening. 

    Ultimately, any time momentum was gained, it seemed as though penalties and bad plays squelched it for the Men of Steel. 

    Six punts included four touchbacks, twice pinning the Steelers inside their five-yard line. Indeed, Andy Lee was a huge problem for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who never had the benefit of favorable field position to assist their injured offense.

    With work like that, there's no reason that Andy Lee won't make a return trip to the Pro Bowl. The video above was taken at the 2010 Pro Bowl.

Antonio Brown Continues to Electrify

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    While fans can argue which receiver is the most dangerous, best all-around or explosive, there is little doubt that no Steelers receiver is more complete than Antonio Brown.

    He can move the sticks from any down and distance. 

    He as great chemistry with Big Ben, both on assigned routes and adjustments.

    He is able to take routine catches for long touchdowns or get open downfield.

    Now, though we've seen it before, acrobatic catches can be added to his resume.

    While Brown finished the game in San Francisco with five catches for 59 yards, his best effort of the evening turned out to be an incomplete pass along the right sideline. Officials ruled that his hand touchdown was out of bounds before his right foot came down on the grass during an effort that torqued his body at a particularly odd angle.

    Whether it was counted or not, his effort was a showcase of what I've suspected for months: The kid can make any catch.

    Did you agree with the ruling? 

Where Was Hines Ward?

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    Heading into the Monday night showdown, fans suspected the Steelers would implement an offense that allowed Ben to release the ball quickly. Intermediate passing routes would be abundant, and a common name hit the radio waves as a potential beneficiary: Hines Ward.

    The tough, savvy receiver has always been masterful in the slot, able to make tough catches against coverage and a reliable go-to option for Roethlisberger when plays break down. 

    The 49ers secondary afforded a great deal of attention to Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, though they did a fine job of containing most of the receiving corp. Jericho Cotchery clearly took advantage with 93 receiving yards on five receptions.

    Heath Miller was another player mentioned as a potential beneficiary of the night's likely strategy. He finished with five catches as well.

    Sure enough, Ben's passes tended to be quick and decisive, barring a few exceptions. On a night where Hines was spotted breaking from the huddle on a fair share of plays, the receiver finished catchless. He entered the contest needing nine catches for 1,000 career receptions.

    He still needs those nine grabs.

    It seems more and more each passing week that the end is near for No. 86.

Scoring Records Should Be Reserved for Skill Players

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    With all respect, David Akers is a phenomenal kicker. From his days with the Eagles until now, the dependable Akers is a perfect model for the modern "thunder thighs" kicking machine known as the NFL kicker, who is able to nail 50-yard attempts with a regularity that similar players from previous eras would have taken at 40 yards.

    I believe Akers is an amazing talent.

    Despite this, kickers have the most opportunity for points of anyone on most football teams just based on the nature of the game, and this is especially true in San Francisco.  The 49ers offense has not been anemic except for in the red zone, which has translated to a slew of field goals for the freakish-footed phenom.

    NFL records for scoring should be exclusively reserved for skill players and associated with touchdowns. Field goals and kicker records should be maintained as a completely separate category. In one perfect storm of a kicking season, Jerry Rice's single-season scoring record fell in last night's contest. 

    I absolutely feel kickers are to be respected, and I understand that they are critically important to a team's success. Trust me, I watch Suisham with the rest of you, and am equally stunned when he hits from any significant distance, such as his 51-yard effort last night.

    Despite this respect, I would love to see Akers play receiver. We could get Jerry Rice kicking through the uprights in no time!

    OK, so maybe not, but I feel I've made my point. Kickers as scoring champions is a silly concept.

Giving Credit to the 49ers Defense

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    The Steelers defense put in a decent effort considering the circumstances, but it wasn't their best showing. 

    I question some of the coverage assignments and felt the cushions along the outside were a bit extreme on many early downs. Likewise, a 49ers offensive line that yielded nine sacks of Alex Smith to the Baltimore Ravens did not surrender one takedown last night.

    Without pressure on Smith, he was able to scan the field and make big throws when they were absolutely needed. 

    While the Pittsburgh defense, like the offense, did some good things and mostly underachieved, the 49ers units did the opposite. In fact, the San Francisco defense, despite yardage surrendered, made huge plays all night.

    The secondary forced three interceptions.

    The defensive front had six tackles for losses, and my selection for defensive rookie of the year added 2.5 sacks to his total. To date, Aldon Smith has 13 sacks in 2011.

    Navarro Bowman played well (as usual), and Patrick Willis replacement Larry Grant created havoc AND defensed four passes.

    It was an exemplary lesson in timely playmaking, an effort that allowed a record-breaking streak to be established. For the 14th straight game in 2011, the 49ers defense did not allow a rushing touchdown.

    In a city that prides itself on run defense, fellow fans of run-stuffing have to be impressed with such a monumental achievement.


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    Let's face it, the playoff implications were the main selling factor for those unbiased fans watching last night's game. For those with a vested interest, the implications were even more encapsulating.

    With the loss, the Steelers fell back into second place in the AFC North. The potential damage is two-fold. First, the possibility of a home playoff game is now incredibly slim, barring a Ravens meltdown or an odd set of outcomes leading into the AFC Championship Game in the playoffs. Likewise, winning the division would no longer assure a bye week.

    By not gaining a game on the Texans, who beat the Steelers in Week 4, Pittsburgh could still have to play Wild Card Weekend even if they manage to surpass the Ravens.

    As it stands, it seems almost 100 percent likely that Pittsburgh would enter the tournament as the AFC's No. 5 seed. That will likely result in a playoff contest on the road against the champion of the AFC West. Currently, Denver leads that race. Could the Steelers play Tim Tebow to kick off the NFL's postseason?

    Regarding a road journey in January, many fans refer to the 2005 Steelers (and the '07 Giants/'10 Packers) as sources of inspiration. Those teams won on the road before ultimately winning the Super Bowl. Noteworthy is that those squads entered the playoffs with momentum and had to have a lot work in their favor to get to the top of the mountain. 

    Mike Vick's interception ended a potential game-winning drive for the Eagles against the Packers. The Steelers nearly collapsed in Indianapolis after leading 21-3. And, the Giants needed a Tony Romo late interception and Brett Favre overtime flub to get into Super Bowl XLII, and that preceded the Eli Manning escaped sack and helmet catch by David Tyree.

    A road path to the big game is rife with bad odds and general uncertainty. In fact, for those who believe in blessings or fate, it seems that Pittsburgh may have used up its stock of good karma during that 2005 -06 run. At the very least, this 2011 team is not that 2005 team.

    The 2011 Steelers suck on the road, plain and simple. Minus two road wins, their nomadic efforts have been plagued by critical penalties, inopportune turnovers and the lack of a killer instinct. Does anyone really feel confident this team can travel away from Heinz Field to win it all this year? There is no doubt that they can, but cans and dos are quite different.

    For the 49ers, the win keeps them in the vital second seed in the NFC. With the Saints and 49ers contending for a bye week, the race is more critical for San Francisco.

    The loser will have to play at home on Wild Card weekend. Should the No. 3 seed win their host game, they would travel to play the other party, barring any crazy changes in the standings in the next two weeks.

    Let's face it, the 49ers would have their hands full in the Superdome against Drew Brees and the Saints. San Francisco needs to host New Orleans.