Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) vs. San Francisco 49ers (10-3)
Kickoff at 5:30 PM (ESPN)
Here are five things to watch for in Monday Night Football’s showdown of the Steelers and 49ers game:
Red Zone, Red Zone, Red Zone
Really I could write a whole post on five things to watch for in the red zone for the 49ers but I will condense it all here. The only way the 49ers will win the game is scoring a touchdown on every possession inside the red zone. The game against the Cardinals showed the days of the offense being able to lean on kicker David Akers for points after they fail inside the 20-yard line are over. If the Cardinals were able to beat the 49ers because the team failed three times inside the red zone in one quarter, what do you think will happen against the Steelers? Simply put, if the 49ers score a TD on all of their possessions inside the red zone there is no way they lose the game. Should the offense fail to score a TD inside the 20, even only once, will mean a loss for the 49ers.
49ers O-line Pass Protection
A lot of the 49ers issues inside the red zone have to do with a lack of pass protection by the 49ers offensive line. If you cannot protect your QB, you will not score no matter how many yards you need to go. When the O-line has great pass protection the 49ers win as they have only given up 19 sacks in their ten wins this season. However, when the O-line fails to show up and protect Alex Smith the 49ers lose with 20 sacks given up in the three defeats. In the 49ers two most recent losses against the Ravens and Cardinals the team gave up 14 sacks.
The 49ers have good veteran players like LT Joe Staley and C Jonathan Goodwin so the recent miscues in pass protection are alarming. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau is known for running defensive schemes that use zone blitzes and cause confusion for the QB and O-line by constantly moving players around. It helps that LB James Harrison will miss the game because of a suspension but it will still be tough to stop the Steelers defense. The 49ers will have their hands full tonight.
Injuries to Steelers and 49ers
The Steelers and 49ers will be missing important pieces to the offense and defense due to injuries. For the Steelers they will be without starting center Maurkice Pouncey who is out with an ankle injury. Look for the 49ers pass rush to exploit Pouncey missing in the middle. The other big injury was to Ben Roethlisberger’s ankle. Roethlisberger is listed as questionable but he is expected to start. Pay attention early in the game to the Steelers first couple of possessions on offense. We should get a good idea to how bad the injury is and if it will affect Roethlisberger the whole game by how mobile he is and the way he plays on the ankle. 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will test Roethlisberger’s ankle early in the game by blitzing him often and forcing him out of the pocket to make him move as much as possible on the ankle.
For the 49ers the biggest injury that hurts the most is to LB Patrick Willis and his hamstring. Willis went out of the game against the Rams in the first quarter two weeks ago and did not play last week against the Cardinals. Willis has not participated in practice all week and even though he will be a game time decision, I highly doubt he will play. Backup LB Larry Grant will start again and if he can mimic his 11 tackles and 1 sack performance last week the 49ers should be in good hands. Still, not having the presence of Willis over the middle is an advantage for the Steelers.
You can view the full injury report here.
The Poise of Alex Smith
The Monday Night Football game tonight will be Alex Smith’s most important and biggest game of his career. Smith will be on a national stage for the second time this season and if he wants to ensure the 49ers hold on to the second seed in the NFC, and to silence his detractors, he will need a big game. I am not talking about a 400-plus yard game but at least 300 passing yards and two touchdowns will help the 49ers pull out the win. Smith also needs to lead his team to touchdowns anytime they are inside the red zone.
The pressure will be on Smith to show he can lead the offense and not just manage it. I think Smith has moved on from his game manager label but the last two losses have shown he is still vulnerable to that description. Whether inside the red zone or anywhere on the field Smith has shown he is not a risk taker when it comes to throwing to receivers. Smith would rather throw the pass away than try to force it if there is tight coverage that could cause a turnover. We have seen this a lot inside the red zone where Smith looks for one receiver and if he is not open he does not create a play to get a receiver open. For Smith to lead the 49ers to victory over the Steelers, he and offense cannot be cautious and most take chances when operating on the field. If the 49ers loose tonight they will not be taken serious by other playoff teams.
The 49ers are going to stop the Steeler rushing attack in the game but the passing game could be more difficult, even with Roethlisberger playing on a hurt ankle. The 49ers have not give up a lot of points or any rushing touchdowns this season but when it comes to defending the pass the D has shown its weakness. The 49ers’ secondary has an impress 18 interceptions this season but when it comes to stopping the deep passes they have given up 11 plays of 40-yards or more which is the fifth most given up. Multiple games this season the 49ers’ secondary have given up over 300 yards passing. The Steelers have two receivers with speed Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. If the secondary can limit the big passing plays to both receivers the 49ers D will put the team in place to win the game.