Before the season started there were 2 games on the schedule you could have taken a permanent marker and put a big “L” next to. One of those was the short week, cross country trip to Baltimore, the other was Monday night. With all the build-up to the first game played between two teams with a combined 11 Superbowl rings, I nor most the country for that matter could predict what we were about to witness. The 49ers played lights out; figuratively, emotionally, and at times literally.
The defense played as they had done all season, they crushed the run, pressured the opposing QB, and came up with turnovers. Aldon Smith is making a great case for rookie of the year, compiling 3 more sacks to bring his total to 13.5 for the season. The secondary, which is sometimes suspect, continues to make the big play led by S Dashon Goldson and CB Carlos Rogers; whom each have 6 picks on the year. This defense is made up of over-achievers whom besides LB Patrick Willis, not many people knew who they are. Yet despite not being a household name, they do lead the league in scoring and rushing defense.
Kickers never get enough credit. While we have talked about how great of a pick-up K David Akers has been, it’s hard to think he now has the record for most points in a season by a 49er. Akers is also within striking distance of most field goals in a season in NFL history. With that said, let’s also give some love to P Andy Lee. There are only 2 reasons punters show up on ESPN, their punt was blocked, or they shanked it worse than my driver. Okay so the latter may be impossible, but all kidding aside Lee was a huge part of the win Monday. Of his 6 punts, 4 were inside the 20 and 3 of those were inside the 10, which got him named NFC special team player of the week. When you can flip the field like that, then follow it up with a tough defense, it’s difficult for anyone to score.
Last and not least is the offense. Playing against a stingy Steelers defense, I didn’t think we’d be able to sustain long drives. Yet the very first drive of the game was a 17 play capped off with a chip shot field goal. While short field goals this year have been disappointing, any drive leading to points against the Steelers is a good one. The 49ers were able to solve some of those red zone woes, with 2 touchdown drives in the 2nd half. Once again QB Alex Smith had a solid day going 18 of 31 for 187 yards with a touchdown and more importantly no turnovers. Coach Harbaugh still believes Smith is a pro bowler, and while his numbers aren’t record setting, he does have the fewest interceptions by a quarterback that has started every game. Another thing to look at is attempts, if Smith had attempted the same number of passes as say Brees, he would already have over 4100 yards, that’s good for 6th in the league.
The best thing to take away from the Steelers game is all 3 phases of the game showed up. Defense was able to get after Big Ben and create turnovers, the special teams was able to execute and change field position, and the offense was able to move the ball and was able to finish off a couple of drives with 7 instead of 3 against a good team.
This was the game we were waiting for all season. The 49ers needed a game like this. They had played close games against good opponents; Dallas, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit, and the New York Giants, but those games were toss ups that came down to a late score or stop that was the difference in the game. They struggled against the best team on the schedule (Baltimore), and going into Monday night I expected the same. This win changes everything, before we were a good team with a great record, now we know we can compete against the league’s top teams, and actually have a shot at getting to the Superbowl.
The win Monday night was great, but hopefully it doesn’t cause a letdown this weekend against the Seahawks. Seattle’s Qwest Field is one of the 2 hardest stadiums to play in, the other is Kansas City, and if you don’t believe me just ask the Packers about Kansas City and Baltimore about Seattle. Seattle has won their last 3 and 5 of their last 6 games. The Seahawks know they still have an outside shot to make the playoffs, and with that in mind they are going to play this game as their Superbowl.
If anything else the Seahawks would love to knock the Niners out of the 2 seed. Pete Carroll hasn’t liked Jim Harbaugh since Jim took over at Stanford. In Jim’s first year as head coach his Cardinals, who were 41 point underdogs, upset Carroll’s Trojans, and then just a couple years later, beat USC 55-21 which led to the first head coach tussle at midfield in Jim’s head coaching career. This was expected to carry on into their NFL careers, especially with the 2 in the same division. This will be their second match-up in the NFL and Carroll would love to draw even.
As long as the Niners stay focused this week they should come out with a win. They are better on offense, defense, special teams, and are better coached. The two areas I think we still need to improve on is 3rd down efficiency and red zone offense. It seems the closer our offense gets to the goal line, the more conservative the play calling gets. Is the coaching staff protecting Smith too much? Possibly, but with all the backing Harbaugh is giving his QB perhaps their waiting to unleash him in the playoffs. Only time will tell.