Steelers Face Test Against Up-And-Coming 49ers
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|Sunday, September 23, 2007
By Eddie Griffin
Steelers Fever Columnist
After back-to-back easy wins over Cleveland and Buffalo to open the season, the Steelers face their toughest opponent yet this week, as they take on the ever-improving San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Heinz Field.
Mike Tomlin has plenty to be happy about through his first two regular-season games as the Steelers’ head man, as the team has clicked on all cylinders thus far.
Ben Roethlisberger (33-57, 403 yards, 5 touchdowns, 1 interception) and Willie Parker (50 carries, 235 yards) have led the way for a balanced offense, while the defense has been absolutely stellar, holding the Browns and Bills to 222 yards per game and racking up ten sacks.
The great play on both sides of the ball has meant that the Steelers have outscored their first two opponents 60-10, and owned double-digit time of possession advantages in both games.
Last Sunday, Pittsburgh won their home opener by knocking off Buffalo 26-3. Big Ben threw for 242 yards and a score, and Parker ran for 126 yards and a score. The defense sacked J.P. Losman four times, and held the Bills to 223 yards and only ten first downs. And, Jeff Reed kicked four first-half field goals, making him a perfect six-for-six in two games.
But, you can bet that things will be just a little tougher on Sunday, when the 49ers come to town. Will the Steelers overcome their first real test and go to 3-0 or will the 49ers do the same and hand Mike Tomlin his first defeat?
Looking at the 49ers
Mike Nolan has done an excellent job in turning around the 49ers in only a couple of seasons. The team that followed the Steelers as the dynasty of the ’80s is well on its way to restoring its great pride, and is looking like the early favorite in the NFC West, with several young talents leading the way on both sides of the ball.
The 49ers have pulled out late wins to start out the season 2-0 for the first time since 1998. In Week 1, they scored a late touchdown to beat the Cardinals 20-17, as QB Alex Smith led a Montana-like drive down the field in the final minutes. Last Sunday, the 49ers got a late field goal from Joe Nedney to lead them to a 17-16 victory at St. Louis.
Like the Steelers, the 49ers are on top in their division, leading the NFC West by one game, as Arizona, Seattle, and St. Louis are all at 1-1.
Keys to Success
The Steelers must put pressure on Alex Smith. Smith can still be prone to making mistakes that young quarterbacks make, so if guys can get into the backfield and rattle him, then it could force him into some bad decisions. Pittsburgh has done an excellent job capitalizing on errors so far, so all it might take to put things squarely in the Steelers’ favor is one mistake.
Keep the ground game going. The 49ers have done a pretty decent job of slowing down the run game against two good runners (Edgerrin James and Steven Jackson), limiting their first two opponents to 3.6 yards per carry. The magic number is four yards per carry, which is more than manageable, considering the Steelers are currently averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
Don’t be afraid to go after the ball. The 49ers have had issues with holding on to the ball, and that means big hits and strips should be high on the agenda. And, if the defense can force a few takeaways, then, just as I said above, it’s on the offense to take over from there.
Willie Parker vs. Patrick Willis
If Willie Parker wants to get into the secondary, he’s going to have to get past Willis to do it.
Willis, the 11th pick overall in April, flies to the ball, no matter where it is. He’s one of those players that just has that drive, that nose for the ball.
He was a prolific tackler for some bad Ole Miss teams, where he had to be a big-time playmaker. And, while the load isn’t as much on him now, you can count on him to be everywhere.
Alex Smith vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Smith was the top overall pick in 2005, and is trying to lead the 49ers back to prominence. Roethlisberger was the 11th overall pick in 2004, and won a Super Bowl in only his second season.
Smith has struggled thus far this season, but has come up with the plays when he’s needed to in both wins. He’s going to need to be much more consistent on Sunday, against a quality defense.
Roethlisberger, meanwhile, has been excellent thus far, and will look to carve up the 49ers’ defense.
It’s not so much about who puts up better numbers, but who runs their team better, that will help determine who comes out on top on Sunday.
Frank Gore vs. Pittsburgh’s run defense
The Steelers have been stingy against the run so far, but will face a test against one of the league’s best young backs.
Gore hasn’t put up big yards so far, but he did have an amazing touchdown run against the Rams. He’ll be looking for his breakout performance on Sunday, and the Steelers will be intent on slowing him down, if not stopping him completely.
What We’ll See
The Steelers are averaging 30 points thus far, but don’t look for a shootout on Sunday.
It’s possible, given both teams’ offensive firepower, but with the defenses that both teams have, all signs point to a defensive battle.
The 49ers have eked out a couple of wins thus far, but are going to have to play much better on Sunday if they want to pull out a road win in the Steel City.
Pittsburgh doesn’t need to put up 400 yards and 30 points on Sunday, but if they play efficiently, then they’ll be in line for a third straight win, because I expect the defense to be on top of their game yet again.
The 49ers will certainly be much more of a test than the Browns or Bills were, but in the end, the Steelers should prevail in the first of three in a row against NFC West teams, to go to 3-0 and keep Mike Tomlin’s unbeaten record going at least one more week.