The 49ers have allowed 39 sacks this season – including 18 over the past three games – so Tuesday’s news that Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison will be suspended for Monday night’s game against San Francisco was welcome news for the Niners.
Harrison, one of the most physical and active linebackers in the NFL, has eight sacks this season and two forced fumbles (while missing four games).
However, there’s a caveat.
Harrison’s agent said the linebacker will appeal the ruling – levied because of Harrison’s helmet-to-helmet blow on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy last week -- which could put him in the lineup Monday night at Candlestick Park, reports Matthew Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
At this point, it’s a challenge the Niners could do without.
Though San Francisco is 10-3 and already has clinched the NFC West title, it needs to finish strong to secure the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed. A win against the Steelers would be a big boost, coming off a disappointing 21-19 loss at Arizona this past Sunday.
As Barrows notes, the Niners’ total of allowed sacks is sixth worst in the NFL this season, and recently the offensive unit has suffered breakdowns in trying to pick up blitzes and stunts in the middle of the line.
The Ravens sacked quarterback Alex Smith nine times on Thanksgiving night, and the Cardinals sacked Smith five times.
Barrows notes that against Arizona, guards Mike Iupati, Adam Snyder and center Jonathan Goodwin “either were beaten or failed to pick up pass rushers at various times.” Plus, left tackle Joe Staley had to leave Sunday’s game early with a concussion, and was replaced by Alex Boone. It’s believed Staley will be cleared to play in Monday night’s game, reported Matt Maiocco of Comcast Sportsnet.
The Steelers defense has 30 sacks this season. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley leads the team with nine.
“That’s on all of us,” Smith said of the sacks allowed vs. the Cardinals. “We all have to be better.”
If Harrison can’t play Monday night, he’ll be replaced by Jason Worilds, who has three sacks.
One interesting stat to note, however, was uncovered by Mike Sando of ESPN. Smith – though sacked frequently – is one of the most efficient QBs in the NFL against extra pass rushers this season. When a team rushes five or more players, Smith has completed 70-of-117 throws (59.8 percent) with eight TDs and one interception and a QB rating of 103.1.
However, says Sando, “It’s clear Smith has minimized turnovers by taking sacks. The 49ers would be better off if he could turn a few of those sacks into quick-strike plays to beat pressure.”