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Old 12-19-2011, 06:05 AM   #1
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Default Matchups to watch: Steelers vs. 49ers

Matchups to watch: Steelers vs. 49ers
Monday, December 19, 2011
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the 49ers have the ball: The 49ers do a good job protecting the ball -- they have committed only 10 turnovers, fewest in the NFL -- but have scored only 25 offensive TDs, seventh fewest in league. They will be facing a defense that leads the AFC in fewest points (198). The 49ers are most effective when they can lean on RB Frank Gore. But he has been slowed by two ankle injuries and a hyper-extended knee since early November. In the past five games, the 49ers have relied on the pass. That has put an onus on protecting QB Alex Smith, and that hasn't happened. He has been sacked 18 times in the past three games. The flip side: Smith has been smart with the football and has traded sacks (39) for interceptions (5). WR Michael Crabtree leads the team with 55 catches, 668 yards, but TEs Vernon Davis (49, 548) and Delanie Walker (19, 198) are fast and present matchup problems. WR Braylon Edwards (14, 172) was supposed to be the team's go-to wide receiver, but he's been hurt.

When the Steelers have the ball: The 49ers lead the NFL in rush defense, which forces teams to pass -- something the Steelers like to do anyway. Sometimes this has worked to the 49ers benefit. They are second in the league in takeaways (31). CB Carlos Rogers and S Dashon Goldson each have five INTs. But the 49ers also have allowed some QBs -- Tony Romo (432 yards), Michael Vick (416), Eli Manning (311) -- to have big games. Big-play threats Mike Wallace (62 catches, 1,034 yards) and Antonio Brown (55, 925) will pose a problem. Part of the reason is the 49ers rarely blitz and rely on their three down linemen and one of their linebackers to put pressure on the QB. That linebacker is Aldon Smith, who leads all NFL rookies with 101/2 sacks. The 49ers could use more blitz packages against QB Charlie Batch, who is expected to start for Ben Roethlisberger. Still, that is not a typical scheme for this defense. Compounding their dilemma: LB Patrick Willis is not expected to play.

K David Akers ... He ranks first in the league in field goals made (36), and part of the reason is the team's recent inefficiencies in the red zone. Akers is 16 for 16 from inside 30 yards this season. But he also has six field goals of 52 yards or longer and has only one miss from 50 or longer. But it's not just Akers. The 49ers are the only team not to allow a return of any kind for TD this season. Ted Ginn Jr. has a 102-yard kick return and 55-yard punt return for TD this season. And P Andy Lee of Pitt leads the NFC with a 50.7-yard average.

This marks just the fourth time in Monday Night Football history two teams face off with 10 victories and a winning percentage of at least .750. ... The Steelers have won four in a row and eight of their past nine. They have also won their past three road games. Conversely, the 49ers have lost two of their past three games, with both losses coming against teams that pattern their defense after the Steelers -- Baltimore and Arizona. ... The Steelers have won their past six games on Monday night. ... The 49ers lead the series, 10-9, including 5-5 at home. ... The 49ers are 40-25 all time on MNF.

To win, the 49ers must ...

1. Get turnovers in batches. That will be the quickest way to frustrate the Steelers, especially if Roethlisberger isn't the quarterback.

2. Not shun the run. The 49ers have to go back to the ground after attempting 105 passes and running 76 times in the past three games.

3. Not go to bed in the red. The offense has produced only three TDs in 19 trips inside the 20 in the past six games.

To win, the Steelers must ...

1 Let the standard be the standard. With so many injuries to key players and without James Harrison, the players have to believe what Mike Tomlin preaches.

2 Gore Frank. The way to beat the 49ers is stop their leading RB and challenge Smith to beat their No. 1-ranked pass defense.

3 Have a tonic for Ginn. In a game matching the two stingiest defenses in the league, a special-teams play could decide the outcome.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11353...#ixzz1gyufPZGo
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