In a game featuring two top-notch defenses, the fate of the Steelers and 49ers might rest upon the two signal callers who have to stare back at them.
Sure, both teams will try to take pressure off their quarterback by establishing the run, but who knows how much success they will have versus the No. 1 (San Francisco) and No. 6 (Pittsburgh) rush defenses in the league. That being said, two questions need to be answered:
- If Ben Roethlisberger plays, how do the Steelers take the heat of their dinged-up passer?
- Alex Smith will play, but will he play well versus the same kind of blitz packages that gave him fits last week against the Cardinals?
We know the Steelers like to run the ball on first down; they rank sixth in carries on first down with 212 (Houston leads the league with 228), while at the same time, they are 27th in the league in rushing attempts on second and third downs combined.
If the Steelers are inefficient running the ball on first down (less than four yards per carry), this puts the onus back on Roethlisberger for the remaining downs. San Francisco only allows 3.5 yards per carry, so with Ben’s injured ankle, can he handle a fair amount of drop backs?
If he will, the Steelers will have to reduce the number of steps in his drop, relying more on the short passing game.
During the last two games, 58 percent of Roethlisberger’s passes have traveled less than seven yards and he has an 80.8 percent completion percentage on those throws. We expect this trend to continue, because Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays and find receivers downfield will be limited, especially against an improving 49ers pass rush.
Rookie nickel pass rusher Aldon Smith is usually on the bench on first down, and it might behoove the Steelers to use those opportunities to supplement a running game that could struggle against the 49ers’ front.
For the 49ers, running the ball is a way of life. They love to bring in extra big people, like defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, to punish opposing defenses. Of the 10 touchdowns from San Fran’s running backs, seven have resulted from some kind of heavy packages with an extra tackle or Sopoaga.
But the Steelers are the kind of smash-mouth defense that craves a straight-ahead running game. They are a front seven with strength and excellent gap integrity. Every gap is accounted for.
The Bengals learned this when they tried to grind on the Steelers in Week 10, running a heavy package on 10 snaps and gaining only 28 yards on those plays. With an extra tackle in the game, Cincinnati tipped its hand and Pittsburgh brought safety Troy Polamalu into the box.
To beat the Steelers, the 49ers might have to spread Pittsburgh out and make them matchup to arguably the best receiving tight end tandem in the NFL, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. In “12” personnel, with two tight ends and one running back, they can present a run and pass threat out of the same package and force Pittsburgh to cover. The 49ers also have a speedy, sub-package wide receiver in Kyle Williams to spread Pittsburgh out even further.
Utilizing these weapons is contingent on whether Smith can stand up to the heat Dick LeBeau is going to be sending his way, though. And, in Davis’ case, Smith hasn’t always looked his way -– he has only targeted Davis in the red zone four times (three of those throws were touchdown catches).
Between these two defenses, it is hard to know who to take on any given week. While the 49ers haven’t given up a rushing touchdown the whole year, the Steelers haven’t allowed one since Week 9 (and only 19 points total in their last three games).
Facing third downs and inevitably pressure, Roethlisberger has the sixth-best completion percentage on third down (62.1 percent) while Smith ranks 21st (54.9). The Steelers and Big Ben have showed a better track record for getting the ball out quickly and on time, which is why we lean in their direction.
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