This is, for about the third time this season, the most important game the San Francisco 49ers have played in almost a decade. After the team traveled down to the Arizona desert last week and collectively crapped the bed, the Niners now have no room for error in their quest for the 2nd seed in the NFC. After winning 10 of the first 12 games, the only losses being to a schizophrenic Dallas Cowboys team in overtime and a Baltimore Ravens team they had about a half an hour to prepare for, the loss on Sunday to the Cardinals was a shock to the system. This seemed to be the team’s first bad game against a supposed inferior opponent. A division game on the road is almost always going to be a dicey proposition, but as the game wore on it didn’t seem as if many Niners fans gave the Cards much of a chance to emerge victorious. Then the 2nd half began and Larry Fitzgerald was running all over the field and every 3 plays the 49ers offense was running off of it. RB Kendall Hunter dropped a fourth down pass on what could have been one of the finer plays of QB Alex Smith’s career and the Niners had run out of chances. After the initial shock of the loss had worn off, the 49ers were left to look ahead to what next week had in store. Now they are facing a must win game and the fearsome 10-3 Pittsburgh Steelers.
When the NFL schedule was announced during the lockout, the first game that stood out on the 49ers docket was Monday, Dec 19 against the Steelers at Candlestick Park. My first thought was, there are going to be A LOT of Pittsburgh fans there. The Steelers fans traditionally roll deep and after much recent success (including a super bowl appearance last year) the black and gold bandwagon is pretty much packed. The Niners second game of the season at home vs the Cowboys was overrun with blue clad Dallas fans in the Candlestick stands, only fanning the fear that the Steelers game could be even worse. Add in the fact that its a Monday night game during Christmas, coupled with the prospect of the Niners having another 6-10 season as predicted, one could imagine there actually being more Steelers fans than 49ers fans at the Stick. But that was September, we now know that both teams enter the game 10-3. This is only the fourth Monday Night game in the history of Monday nights and football games that features 2 teams with winning percentages of .750 or above. The Niners happened to have been involved in all 4, winning the first 3 no less. This has little to no bearing on this weeks contest, but maybe it’s a good omen.
When it gets to be Christmas time no NFL team is going to be injury free, or in James Harrison’s case, suspension free. Figureheads of both the Pittsburgh and San Francisco squads are banged up. The 2 pillars of the Niners franchise through the lean times, LB Patrick Willis and RB Frank Gore, are both hurting. Willis being the most severe, as he missed last weeks Cardinals game. We all saw how that turned out. One suspects that Willis will be a game time decision, saving him for the playoffs being one option. Not having the best MLB on the planet in your lineup thus jeopardizing the precious number 2 seed is a side effect of this option. Gore is playing through what Jim Harbaugh called “a couple of things.” Those “couple of things” got in the way enough to where Gore only carried the ball 10 times last week, way down from his average of 18 runs a game. The 49ers all important running attack could fall squarely on the rookie shoulders of Kendall Hunter. Hunter should be eager to erase the memory of the dropped 4th down pass that ended last weeks game. Increased playing time would be a perfect opportunity for the little guy. Success rushing the ball could ease the pressure on the 2 areas the offense has struggled with in recent weeks, pass protection and scoring a damn touchdown in the red zone. The suspension of the maniacal Harrison should at least lessen the threat of Alex Smith being decapitated.
With all the talk of the Niners pass protection issues, the Steelers aren’t too far behind, allowing 37 sacks this year, just 2 less than San Francisco. Ben Roethlisberger’s status for Monday is up in the air, so if he does play, the usually elusive Big Ben will most definitely be hobbling around in the pocket. Elusive QB’s have given the Niners passing D fits this year, i.e. Michael Vick’s 446 yards passing. Even the legendary John Skelton escaped the pass rush to burn the defense for big plays through the air. If the 49ers can keep the pressure on Big Ben all night and control the clock with the re-emergance of the running game on offense, Monday night could be a huge confidence boost for the Niners after last weeks disappointment in Arizona.