The NFL is weird. When schedules are announced over the summer, every fan looks at their team’s slate and begins to mentally check off wins and losses. Of course, it NEVER plays out as we expect. The baseball season lasts like six months, the hockey and basketball seasons last nearly as long. Football season is the shortest of the four major sports but so many twists and turns occur over sixteen games that it feels a lot longer.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers were scheduled to face the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football back in August, I’m sure most members of Steeler Nation had that penciled in as an easy W. The Niners were a miserable 6-10 last year and starting a new regime under college coaching wunderkind Jim Harbaugh. The lockout prevented them from bringing in a new quarterback so they were stuck with former first overall pick Alex Smith, who looked like an epic bust. Even if the trip out to the West Coast has historically been tough, this was still a game the Steelers should win.
Fast forward four months later. The Niners are one of the surprise teams of the year, having already clinched their first NFC West title in over a decade. Harbaugh is probably going to be coach of the year. Meanwhile, the Steelers are facing them at the worst possible time. Their superstar quarterback just suffered a horrific ankle injury while their superstar linebacker is suspended for one game. Mix in the fact both teams are in a playoff scramble for seeding position and you have a recipe for disaster.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs 49ers OFFENSE
Harbaugh’s greatest accomplishment is the reclamation project he’s done with Alex Smith. Smith isn’t going to be confused with Drew Brees or Tom Brady any time soon but under Harbaugh’s tutelage, he’s blossomed in to a very capable game manager. He’s completing 62% of his passes and sports a sparkling 15/5 TD-INT ratio thanks to an offense which emphasizes a strong running game and short safe throws. Smith isn’t going to beat you all by himself but at least he’s advanced to the point he’s no longer the reason the team loses.
Running back Frank Gore is the team’s main offensive weapon. He’s already passed the 1,000 yard mark for the fifth time in his seven year career. He’s that rare combination of power back who has the speed and shiftiness to break long runs while also being adept as a pass catcher out of the backfield. How Gore goes so goes the Niners’ offense. Early in the year when he ripped off five straight 100 yard games, they won five straight. Since sustaining a knee injury at Washington, his production has dipped and the team has lost two of their last three.
Without Gore, San Fran’s offense is pretty pitiful. Not that it’d be described as “explosive” even with him fully healthy. The Niners are the lowest scoring team that still has a winning record. They are 29th in passing and 26th in yards per game. They’ve only scored more than 25 points twice this season. They win by grinding it out on offense while relying on a ferocious defense to keep the score close.
With James Harrison‘s suspension upheld, he’ll be sitting home on Monday. The good news is LaMarr Woodley will finally be back from the hamstring injury which has sidelined him since the bye. So it’ll likely be Woodley and Jason Worilds on the outside as the Steelers continue their streak of not having Woodley and Harrison on the field together at the same time. Troy Polamalu was also limited in practice during the week but did go on Friday so it looks like he’ll be playing.
The Steelers continue to have the top secondary in the NFL. Given Smith’s limitations, I don’t expect they’ll have much trouble containing him. It’ll come down to their run defense, which has improved of late, and Gore’s health. If Gore plays at anywhere approaching top form, they could be in for a long game. If he’s hobbled and guys like Casey Hampton, Ziggy Hood and Bret Keisel dominate the line of scrimmage, don’t expect the Niners to move the ball very effectively.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs 49ers DEFENSE
Ben Roethlisberger will be a game time decision. He did practice, albeit on a limited basis, and no doubt wants to go. The question is whether Mike Tomlin should let him. The Niners have the fourth ranked defense in football and can get after the passer. If Ben cannot move adequately enough to escape pressure and becomes basically a sitting duck, the potential for serious injury is increased tenfold. As important as playoff position is, I feel it’s insanity to consider letting him play.
The backup quarterbacks have been taking snaps and I imagine Tomlin will have Dennis Dixon dressed in case he’s needed. Charlie Batch remains the team’s second stringer and would start despite looking horrid in his brief audition at Cleveland. With full preparation, perhaps Chaz can summon some of that magic he displayed last year in coming within one missed Skippy Reed FG of leading the team to a 4-0 start. If he continues to struggle, well, I hope Tomlin doesn’t hesitate in calling on DD. If nothing else, Dix’s legs provide him the kind of escapability neither Batch nor the hobbled Ben would have.
And they will be under pressure. Center Maurkice Pouncey, battling his own high ankle sprain, is clearly only half the man Big Ben is because he has already been ruled out. The Big Legursky will take his place. While Legursky has performed well at center, this means worthless POS Chris Kemoeatu will probably start at guard. Over/under on false starts: 4. Meanwhile, Marcus Gilbert has been battling the flu but will probably play on Monday. Upheaval on the line has been a running joke this year but it’s a major issue this week when you’re potentially charged with protecting a quarterback playing on one leg.
The good news is the Niners will also be without their top defensive player. Patrick Willis, who I consider the best linebacker in football, is not expected to play. That should help our beleaguered offensive line. They still have to contend with LB Aldon Smith (10.5 sacks) and DE Justin Smith (6.5). What the hell? It’s like the Matrix with Smiths all over the place.
While both players benefit from extra attention being paid to Willis, don’t underestimate their ability to get after the quarterback. They also contribute to the Niners’ top ranked rush defense. See what I mean about this being the absolute worse match-up at the absolute worse time? With Ben injured, I’d advocate going back to Stiller Football but between the Steelers totally inept running game and facing an opponent great at stopping the run, I don’t see that as a viable strategy.
Between two anemic offenses and two really good defenses, this game has the potential to match the Steelers’ epic 9-0 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2006. Even if Ben guts it out, I wouldn’t expect him to do a whole lot. And if he doesn’t, well, the game will be played close to the vest with the team making the fewest mistakes winning. In a sea of uncertainty, the only thing for sure is bet the under.