The 49ers can make a very loud statement Monday night with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite last week’s loss to the Cardinals, despite an offense that seems to have stalled in recent weeks and despite all those who still don’t believe in Jim Harbaugh’s team, a victory over the Steelers on national TV will give the Niners a huge shot of confidence and momentum.
Oddsmakers have made the NFC West champions one-point favorites. However, many believe the Niners have hit a plateau.
Both teams are 10-3, but the Steelers are 10-3 in the rough AFC North and have a physical, blitzing defense – the same defense Arizona used last week to sack Alex Smith five times in the Cardinals’ 21-19 victory.
On Monday, both teams will be without key players. The Steelers will be without linebackers James Harrison (suspended) and LaMarr Woodley, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, hampered by an ankle injury, is expected to play. The Niners will be missing standout linebacker Patrick Willis, and possibly left offensive tackle Joe Staley, who hasn’t yet been cleared after suffering a concussion in Arizona.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. looks at Monday night’s matchup and sees a Niners team that he believes peaked in its first 10 games, then has come back to Earth. Williamson, in a blog on ESPN.com, says the 49ers “might have hit their head on the ceiling. The talent has taken them as far as it will. That does not mean they cannot win playoff games. But this is a bad matchup against the Steelers.”
The 49ers, who have had trouble picking up blitzes – giving up 18 sacks in the past three games – could have trouble with the Steelers rush schemes.
Also, Williamson sees the Niners’ troubles in the red zone as a reflection on Alex Smith’s weaknesses at quarterback. Against a tough Pittsburgh defense, San Francisco could again stall when it gets inside the 20.
“Every weakness is exaggerated in the red zone for a quarterback,” Williamson told ESPN. “There are a lot more bodies in a smaller space, a lot more molecules bouncing off the walls. You have to be a little more accurate, a little better anticipation. Donovan McNabb was not that great in the red zone. He was not an anticipatory thrower or very accurate. Smith has some of those qualities, too, but less. He is not as talented. But I know he’s done well in the red zone before. One thing that comes to mind is a lack of involvement from (tight end) Vernon Davis.”
San Francisco’s offense should at least have a healthy Frank Gore at running back Monday night. Gore, who only had 10 carries in the loss at Arizona and was said by Harbaugh to be “not 100 percent” the next day, went through the entire practice Thursday, reported Matt Maiocco of Comcast Sportsnet.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters this week he looks at the 49ers and is worried about a team that has an excellent defense and special teams.
He said even without Willis, the San Francisco run defense presents “an enormous challenge.”
The Niners haven’t given up a rushing TD this season, are first in the NFL in red-zone defense and first in the NFL in turnover margin.
“They’re a tough nut to crack and we respect that,” Tomlin said.