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12-15-2011, 06:50 AM
Advanced Scouting: San Francisco 49ers
By Mike Bires mbires@timesonline.com | Posted: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 11:24 pm

PITTSBURGH -- In his first year on the job, coach Jim Harbaugh has changed the culture in San Francisco. What he's done with the resurgent 49ers is one of the most fascinating success stories in the NFL.

After failing to make the playoffs for eight straight years, the Niners have already qualified for the Super Bowl tournament. At 10-3, they've already won the NFC West.

"They're a very balanced outfit on offense, defense and special teams," Tomlin said. "They're a fundamentalist group. They are capable of running the football on anyone. They are capable of stopping the run. They are No. 1 in the league in stopping the run. They are No. 1 in the league in terms of points given up per game.

"Those are all good recipes for being a winning team, which they are. They don't need any endorsement from me."

On Monday night, two of the NFL's most storied franchises meet at Candlestick Park in a game with huge playoff implications.

For the Steelers (10-3), they need a win as they try to keep pace with Baltimore (10-3) in the AFC North.

For the 49ers, they want to win as they try to secure the NFC's No. 2 seed.

"There are many reasons why they're 10-3," Tomlin said.

Times football writer Mike Bires takes a look at the main reasons why the Niners are playing so well:


To be sure, the 49ers aren't an offensive juggernaut. They're 26th in the league in total offense, 29th in passing and 23rd in touchdowns scored. But they do rank seventh in rushing.

"Their attack is centered around the exploits of Frank Gore," Tomlin said. "He's a great player. He has been for a number of years. A lot of the things they do on offense work off of what he is capable of doing running the football."

Gore is the franchise's all-time leading rusher with 7,468 yards. This season, he's fourth in the NFL with 1,054.

Quarterback Alex Smith -- the No. 1 overall pick of the 05 draft -- has endured his share of problems over the years. But this season, he's never been better with 15 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. He's ninth in the league with a 91.5 passer rating.

"Alex Smith has done an awesome job for them, starting in terms of taking care of the football," Tomlin said. "They lead the league in turnover margin (plus 21). They are getting quite a few turnovers (with their defense) but they're also doing an awesome job of protecting the football. They've only turned the ball over 10 times this season, with only five interceptions. That speaks to the quality decision making that Alex Smith is doing for them."


The 49ers rank No. 1 in the league in fewest points allowed (14.0 per game) and rushing defense (70.5 yards per game). They have yet to allow a rushing touchdown. And they've created 31 turnovers - 18 interceptions, 13 fumbles recoveries - which ranks second to the Packers' 32 takeaways.

The star of the San Francisco defense is inside linebacker Patrick Willis, the 11th overall pick of the '07 draft. Although it's a description he tends to overuse, Tomlin calls Willis "arguably the best in the world at what he does."

However, Tomlin's point is well taken. Willis, who missed last week's loss in Arizona with a hamstring pull, has been to four straight Pro Bowls and has been named first-team All Pro in three of his four NFL seasons.

Another standout in the Niners' 3-4 defense is Aldon Smith, a rookie outside linebacker taken with the seventh overall pick of this year's draft. He ranks eighth in the league with 10.5 sacks.

"I have looked hard at him, not only as recently as this week, but as far back as last spring in preparation for the draft," Tomlin said of Smith. "Boy, he's a special pass rusher with unique talent, and it's showing itself inside NFL stadiums. He's off to a great start. Obviously we've got to get him blocked when we're talking about passing the ball."

In the secondary, cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson are tied for fourth in the league with five interceptions each.


Andy Lee, a former Pitt star, is second in the NFL in punting with a 50.7 average.

Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., a former Ohio State star, is one of the league's top kick return specialists. He's second in kickoff returns with a 28.1 yard average and fourth in punt returns at 12.3. He's returned two kicks for touchdowns -- a 102-yarder on a kickoff and a 55-yarder on a punt. Also, kicker David Akers leads the NFL in field goals (36) and points (135).

"They are not a good team on special teams," Tomlin said. "They are a great team."