49ers vs. Steelers: What's the Game Plan for Pittsburgh?
While the Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed great success on the ground against the New England Patriots in Week 1 thanks to DeAngelo Williams, those yards will be much tougher to come by on Sunday against the visiting San Francisco 49ers, who held Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson to just 31 yards on 10 carries in Week 1.
Williams is no Peterson, and without Maurkice Pouncey anchoring the center of the Steelers offensive line, it will make it that much harder for the Steelers to run the ball on a consistent basis against the Niners.
Enter Ben Roethlisberger, who will likely have to carry the Steelers to victory if they want to avoid a 0-2 start to the season.
How can the Steelers attack the daunting Niners defense without Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant?
Nothing will be easy for the Steelers on Sunday, but with a good game plan on both sides of the ball, the Steelers should avoid 0-2.
Offensive Game Plan
Once again, the Steelers are without Bell and Bryant, so roughly half of the offensive weapons are missing heading into Sunday's matchup against the 49ers.
However, the Steelers didn't miss Bell and Bryant as much as pundits expected in Week 1, with Pittsburgh racking up 464 total yards against New England.
The Patriots defense is nothing like San Francisco's defense, which features All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, breakout defensive end Aaron Lynch, and stalwart safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea.
The Niners defense put a hurting on the Minnesota Vikings offense in Week 1, but the good news for Steelers fans is that Pittsburgh's offense is much more explosive, features a better offensive line and has a superstar quarterback.
Pittsburgh will have to take advantage of San Francisco's aggressiveness on defense by using a lot of quick-hitting passes and screens to receivers and running backs out of the backfield early and often to try to slow down Lynch, Bowman and the rest of San Francisco's pass-rushers.
San Francisco was aggressive Monday night, sending blitzes from all over the field, which forced Teddy Bridgewater to throw off balance and look lost in general for much of the night. The same won't be said for Roethlisberger, who fares quite well in the face of pressure.
Heath Miller will have to be ready for a heavy workload, as Roethlisberger will look for him often as the hot read against the blitz, as well as the main target in Pittsburgh's seemingly trademarked run-pass read-option play.
Outside of quick screens and short crossing routes, the Steelers will have to establish some resemblance of a running game against San Francisco early to take some pressure off Roethlisberger and his receivers.
DeAngelo Williams was terrific in Week 1, but he'll have to pick up a lot of tough yards on Sunday. This game will be a big step in the right direction for him, so long as he can still take punishment, which the Niners will bring plenty of defensively.
On top of that, offensive coordinator Todd Haley can't afford to get cute in this game. Yards will be hard enough to come by, so being smart with play-calling and being aggressive in the right situations is a must for Haley, who didn't have the best game against New England.
Look for Roethlisberger to establish rapport with Miller and star receiver Antonio Brown—who will stretch his streak of five catches and 50 yards receiving to 34 straight games—early and often while mixing in some run plays to Williams to keep the Niners off balance.
The Steelers will have to dink and dunk early, but look for Roethlisberger to take shots deep once again. Darrius Heyward-Bey will have to continue to try to take the top off of the Niners series after series to open up the underneath stuff for Brown, Miller and Markus Wheaton to exploit.
Defensive Game Plan
This will be a tough game for the Steelers defense, especially considering how dangerous Colin Kaepernick and Carlos Hyde are as a tandem out of the backfield.
While the Steelers are good at stopping the run, Hyde offers the rare combination of speed and power that is becoming the new normal at running back in the NFL.
The former Ohio State Buckeye star feasted on the zone-stretch play against Minnesota in Week 1, waiting for Vikings defenders to overpursue before cutting back for big gains on his way to 168 yards and two touchdowns.
Pittsburgh can't afford to be overaggressive and allow huge cutback lanes for Hyde on Sunday.
By staying within their assignments, the Steelers can take away the big running lanes that the Vikings afforded Hyde, which will force the Niners to look to the air to move the ball against Pittsburgh.
Luckily for the Steelers, Tom Brady won't be throwing against them this week. Kaepernick is coming off a rough year in which he struggled as a passer, but he looked good against the Vikings and made all the right decisions.
The former Nevada Wolf Pack star has a cannon for an arm and can fit the ball into tight windows, but he struggles with accuracy and is prone to bad turnovers. However, what makes him especially dangerous is his ability to pull the ball down and pick up huge yards on the ground.
Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, Arthur Moats and James Harrison have to be smart when it comes to rushing the passer. They have to stay in their lanes and keep him in the pocket, negating the threat of his legs beating and forcing his arm to try to do the job.
Along with the Steelers pass-rushers having to be smart and sound technique-wise, Pittsburgh's cornerbacks must do a much better job of tackling the catch for minimal gain, namely Antwon Blake.
With Cortez Allen's status is in question for Sunday's game, Steelers fans might get their first real look at Brandon Boykin, who is one of the better slot corners in football. He'll be an added boost to the Steelers secondary, which was torched last week.
If Boykin can step up and force a turnover or two, Blake makes the tackles he's supposed to, and the Steelers pass-rushers keep Kaepernick in the pocket and force him to beat the defense with his arm, Pittsburgh will stand a good chance at avoiding the dreaded 0-2 start.
In a puzzling move, recently signed cornerback, Ross Cockrell, has vaulted over Brandon Boykin on the depth chart, where the former Bills corner will play on the boundary, which will force William Gay into the slot. This seems to be a move to try and keep Boykin off the field as much as possible so that the Steelers don't have to give up a 4th round pick to the Eagles instead of a 5th rounder.
Steelers outside linebackers vs. 49ers' Joe Staley and Erik Pears
Joe Staley and Erik Pears did a nice job of protecting Kaepernick in Week 1 while also getting out in front of Hyde on the zone stretches to try to seal the edges.
On the flip side, the Steelers outside linebackers had a decent game against New England as a whole, led by Bud Dupree's first career NFL sack. As a unit, they'll have to do much more on Sunday to help the Steelers defense get off the field.
When rushing Kaepernick, the outside linebackers can't be pushed off their path to the quarterback. If that means slowing up on the pass rush to help them stay in their lanes, then so be it. Kaepernick is a dangerous weapon once he gets out of the pocket, so James Harrison and Co. must keep him shackled to the pocket at all costs.
Staley and Pears aren't the most nimble tackles out there. They do struggle with speed off the edge at times, which is where Jarvis Jones and Dupree will have to use their speed and athleticism off the edge to give Staley and Pears fits.
Cody Wallace and Ramon Foster vs. NaVorro Bowman
Honestly, it's great to see Bowman back on the field at full health coming off that gruesome knee injury he suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship Game against the Seattle Seahawks.
He is one of the best inside linebackers in football and arguably the best blitzing linebacker, period. Take a moment to watch the 49ers-Vikings Monday Night Football game: Bowman was consistently in the backfield.
Unfortunately for football fans, you're missing out on the Bowman-Pouncey battle that was sure to be a great one, thanks to Pouncey's injury that will keep him out for half the season. In his place, Cody Wallace is coming off a rough game against the Patriots.
With Foster alongside him calling the majority of the signals for the offensive line, all Wallace will have to focus on his making the blocks that the calls dictate. That will probably mean trying to slow down Bowman when he does come on blitzes up the middle.
If the Steelers offense wants to avoid the same fate that Minnesota suffered on Monday, Wallace and Foster will have to be on the top of their games and on the same page to try to stop Bowman and the rest of the 49ers blitzers from applying disruptive pressure up the middle, which could throw Roethlisberger off his game.
Ryan Shazier vs. Carlos Hyde
No, these two won't match up directly for every snap, but each is paramount to his team in this game. Plus, they're former teammates at Ohio State who share a special bond.
Hyde was the majority of San Francisco's offense against Minnesota, so the Niners will likely rely on him heavily once again.
As for Shazier, he's easily the Steelers' most athletic linebacker. He will have to make plays sideline to sideline and use his speed and athleticism to his advantage, much like Minnesota's Anthony Barr did on Monday.
If Shazier can fly around and make plays all over the field, it will provide the Steelers defense with a much-needed boost, as well as a counter to Hyde's speed and power.
Prediction: Steelers 31, 49ers 23
With a much better performance from the Steelers defense this week, Pittsburgh will avoid a 0-2 start, keeping its playoff aspirations alive.
San Francisco will play right into the strength of the Steelers defense by trying to run the ball down Pittsburgh's throat, but a stout front seven will hold Carlos Hyde well below his Week 1 performance. Forcing Colin Kaepernick to throw, Brandon Boykin and the Steelers secondary will come up with a big play or two to put the Steelers dynamic offense in good field position, where Ben Roethlisberger will finish off drives with touchdowns instead of field goals.
Darrius Heyward-Bey will have another long catch, and Roethlisberger will throw for more than 350 yards for the second straight week while the running game struggles to get anything going against a fierce Niners front seven.
Prediction: Steelers 31, 49ers 23