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Know Thy Enemy: San Francisco 49ers

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Those of you who watched this week’s inaugural edition of Monday Night Football probably had a reaction similar to mine: “Holy shit! We have to play these guys next?”

Yep, we do.

This Sunday the Pittsburgh Steelers host the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener at Heinz Field. The Niners are coming off an utter dismantling of the Vikings on Monday night. The Black and Gold are coming off a frustrating loss to New England. In a unique quirk of the schedules, this is the first time I can recall a team that played on a Thursday – thus getting 10 days rest – will be matched up against a team playing on a short week. What’s more the Niners have a cross-country trip to contend with.

Then again, that trip never seems to bother the Raiders.

On paper, this looks to be a very competitive game. The Niners were sort of left for dead this off-season after losing several key players to free agency, retirement or criminality. Speaking of crooks, they lost their biggest one when coach Jim Harbaugh decided to flee the NFL for a cushy college job at his alma mater of Michigan. Some saw this as a sign of decline but anybody who watched San Fran last year couldn’t help notice the players were in open rebellion against one of the biggest assholes in football. Being free of him couldn’t help but improve the team.

They did lose actual on-field talent such as running back Frank Gore, who signed with Indy this summer. Or perennial All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, who decided to retire over a nagging foot injury, not unlike our very own Jack Lambert. Willis was one of the players associated with the Steelers in the ’07 draft but was gone several picks before we took Lawrence Timmons (after the Jets swooped in and stole Darrelle Revis one pick ahead of us). The loss of such a defensive stalwart couldn’t help but be keenly felt.

It didn’t look much like they missed him on Monday. The Niners defense played tough, aggressive defense with a bunch of unheralded young guys under the tutelage of new head coach – and former defensive line coach – Jim Tomsula. Interestingly, Tomsula’s first job was as D-line coach at Woodland Hills after having been born and raised in Homestead. I’m sure you’ll hear this once or five times during the game on Sunday.

Linebacker NaVarro Bowman and free agent S Antoine Bethea lead a re-tooled defense onto Heinz Field. Linebacker Aaron Lynch put a lot of pressure on QB Teddy Bridgewater while journeyman Tremaine Brock picked him off once. Perhaps most impressively, they held the returning Adrian Peterson to only 31 yards rushing although he probably had a layer of dust thicker than on the vintage GI Joes in my attic. The Vikings only had 3 points but their offense looked far from the high-powered unit the Steelers will roll out on a Sunday.

The most frustrating part of Thursday’s loss was how winnable the game actually was. The Steelers lost by a TD but two missed field goals and 4 points left off the board because Darrius Heyward-Bey can’t see where a chalk line is pretty much cost them a victory. In many ways, the Steelers actually outplayed New England. If not for the unstoppable force known as The Gronk, the Steelers probably still would’ve won even with all their blunders. Of course, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts then every day would be Christmas.

Bottom line is the Steelers have to get their act together on offense if they want to win. Primarily, stop settling for field goals inside the red zone. Perhaps that’s easier said than done minus Le’Veon Bell, in the final week of his pot suspension. DeAngelo Williams had an outstanding game last week – 127, an output he’ll be hard-pressed to match this weekend – but the fact he mostly came out inside the red zone seems to indicate they don’t see him as a closer. Bell’s a closer. Without him, they have to depend on fullback Will Johnson as their goal line back, hardly a recipe for success.

Our defense is definitely a weak spot but they didn’t play all that horribly last Thursday. Couldn’t handle Gronk but he’s a once in a generation type talent. On the other hand, there was a lot of miscommunication and blown coverages which absolutely are correctable. They also fell on their old pattern of not generating pressure on the QB and not generating turnovers. I’m not sure pressure is a big factor this week against Colin Kaepernick, one of the best running QBs in football. If anything, they’ll need to be more worried about keeping him contained so his legs don’t end up costing them first downs.

Speaking of legs, the interesting match-up will be RB Carlos Hyde against our line. The Steelers had mixed success against Dion Lewis last week while Hyde ran wild, piling up 168 yards and 2 TDs against what was expected to be a decent Vikings defense. With Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, and Lawrence Timmons out there, the Steelers have one of the fastest LB corps in the game. In theory, they should at least be much improved against the run this year and this will be their first serious test.

When the 2015 schedule was announced, we all noted the Black and Gold’s first four games were an absolute nightmare. There was hope we could steal a win against the Pats but Roger Goodell‘s incompetence leading to to Brady’s overturned suspension killed that notion. Absent judicial intervention, the best chance to avoid an 0-4 start appeared to be this second game at home against San Francisco. Obviously it’s silly to predict outcomes months in advance but now that we’re here it does appear to be the most winnable game of the first four. If the Steelers don’t want to dig themselves a massive hole they probably won’t be able to escape from, it would behoove them to bring their A game this week.