San Francisco 49ers fans everywhere had a feeling they had not felt in a while: Excitement for a 49ers game on Monday Night Football, which was the first meaningful game in December in a long time. The excitement of the 49ers not only playing on a national stage but with ten wins, as NFC West champs and against the Steelers built up the game anxiety as kickoff approached. That anxiety only increased when the lights went out at Candlestick Park reminding the 49ers Faithful and the rest of the NFL, the 49ers have a crappy stadium. There would be a 20 minute delay until the lights were fully restored. Waiting out the lights to return I had so many thoughts racing through my mind as to whether or not this was a good or bad thing for the 49ers.
The lights going out had nothing to do with the 49ers winning the game but that did not stop the Steelers from crying foul. Even with the lights going out again in the second quarter causing a delay of 16 minutes, it did not seem to affect either team. The City of San Francisco and the electric company running the grid do not know what caused both outages.
While the Steelers and everyone else focus on the reason for the lights going out, the 49ers and fans focus on the team one win away, and a Saints loss, from clinching the second seed in the NFC. Let’s hand out some Game Gold Nuggets:
= VERY GOOD
The 49ers offense flew out of the gate on their first drive with the longest drive since 2008: 17 plays, 69 yards, 7:11. Problem was the offense got into the red zone which is where the 49ers offense goes to die. QB Alex Smith (18-for-31, 187 passing yards, 1 TD) led the 49ers down the field but could not get into the end zone even though they were at the 3-yard line.
In my preview yesterday I said the 49ers would lose if they did not convert all of their red zone possessions into touchdowns. After the first failure of the game inside the 20, I held out hope. But when the 49ers got close again, this time on the 20-yard line, and could not score a TD, I was beginning to lose hope. I thought at the time ‘here we go again’. The play was the only one in the red zone but was a bad throw by Smith to RB Frank Gore (65 yards, 1 TD) because of pressure and resulted in the second field goal of the game.
Smith would lead the offense into the end zone in the third quarter but he had multiple overthrown deep passes. The deep passes to WR’s Michael Crabtree (4 rec, 35 yards) and Kyle Williams (4 rec, 33 yards) should have gone for touchdowns but Smith missed badly. Smith was more accurate on the slant and out routes but the first touchdown was set up by a 27-yard completion to RB Kendall Hunter (2 rec, 24 yards). On the next play Smith hit TE Vernon Davis (6 rec, 72 yards, 1 TD) with a perfect pass over his shoulder that made you forget about the previous miscues. Davis almost scored on the play but was ruled out at the 1-yard line. With a play action on the next play Davis was wide open in the end zone and got his touchdown.
After a turnover by the defense that put the 49ers at Pittsburgh’s 17-yard line the offense put the game away with a Gore rushing TD and the offenses second red zone touchdown.
Smith’s 187 passing yards don’t show that he had a spectacular game but he came up big in second half when he was needed. Alex may no longer be a game manager but he is a quarterback that leans on the D to make up for the lack of scoring inside the red zone. In the last two games of the season Alex will need to figure out the lingering red zone issues and become more accurate on deep throws. When that happens, the 49ers will have a more rounded and multidimensional offense heading into the playoffs.
LB Aldon Smith (3 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is a beast. With 2.5 sacks on QB Ben Roethlisberger that went for a loss of 19 total yards, Smith made another case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Aldon pressured Roethlisberger every time he was in the game. Smith has 13 sacks this season which is the most by a rookie in team history.
LB Larry Grant (6 tackles, 4 pass deflections) had another great game filling in for LB Patrick Willis. He and LB NaVarro Bowman (7 tackles) took away the middle of the field not allowing Steelers receivers to have any space. The Steelers offense was able to pass for 330 yards and had four receivers with five receptions for at least 59 yards. The secondary showed up late in drives forcing three interceptions by Dashon Goldson (6 tackles), Tarell Brown (2 pass deflections) and Carlos Rogers (2 tackles, 2 pass deflections). Roethlisberger had not thrown an INT in the first quarter this season. Two of the 49ers INT’s were in the first quarter. Brown did a great job of limiting damage done by WR Mike Wallace to 66 yards and no touchdowns.
The defense almost recorded its second shutout of the season if not for the 48-yard pass to TE Heath Miller that set up the three points scored by the Steelers. The D extended their streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher or a rushing touchdown all-season. With games like this by the defense, the Packers offense is not so scary.
When you have the best punter in the NFL and a potential MVP candidate place kicker, who needs the offense to score? Andy Lee killed it in the game averaging 47.5 on six punts with four landing inside the 20-yard line. David Akers made his two field goals of 22 and 38 yards. On his second field goal Akers passed Jerry Rice for the franchise’s single-season points record with 141. Akers is a kicker but he should garner a few MVP votes.
Jim Harbaugh knew how big of a game the 49ers were playing last night. I would bet he would say the game was bigger than the Har-Bowl. Harbaugh knows the 49ers weaknesses on offense and he fixed both of them in the game against the Steelers. The offense finally found a way to score in the red zone and the offensive line provided great protection all game. LT Joe Staley said after the game the O-line was so prepared they knew what blitzes were coming. It showed as they did not give up one sack.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio still has to figure out the issues with giving up deep passes but with the way the secondary came up big ending Steelers drives, he is almost there. Fangio use of Aldon Smith is brilliant as he gets starting production out of a him even though he is only in the game on passing downs.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman continues to show his innovation with the way he uses his player’s best abilities to the advantage of the offense. One example was Roman’s use of Ted Ginn’s speed on an end round for a 1st down that out ran the defenders. Roman saw a weakness in the Steelers D giving up the out routes. Alex Smith completed four passes on out routes that went for first downs. After deep passes that were overthrown Roman knew to have Smith pass short where he is more accurate.
NEXT UP: @ Seattle
The 49ers are one win and a Saints loss away from clinching the number two seed in the NFC. The Seahawks are always a tough matchup, especially on the road. The Seahawks enter the game on a four-game winning streak and have their offense finally figured out. This will be the first game back to Seattle since last season’s 25 point loss to the Seahawks.