The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing on Monday Night Football for the first time this season. That's big. They are playing one of the best teams in the league in the San Francisco 49ers. That's big. This is a potential Super Bowl match-up. That's big. The Baltimore Ravens got smacked by the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night so a win could put the Steelers in the top spot in the AFC. That is huge. Climbing into that top spot will be much easier said than done. With an injury list that has just as many names on it as the hockey team in the same city, the Steelers will literally be limping into this game.
Steelers Offense vs. 49ers Defense: The 49ers boast the league's best scoring defense. They only allow 14 points per game and have been the driving force behind the success of their team. The Steelers could catch a break though. Patrick Willis did not practice at all this week leading many to believe that he will miss his second straight game with a hamstring injury. He is the quarterback of their defense and arguably the best middle linebacker in the league.
Even without Willis, the 49ers have a solid defense. Running the ball will be hard to come by. The Steelers have not had much success getting the ground game going against average defenses this year. The 49ers' defense is one that has not allowed a rushing touchdown this season. These are the type of games where it becomes very frustrating to watch Rashard Mendenhall run. This may be the game for the Steelers to showcase his receiving ability out of the backfield that we heard so much about when he was drafted out of Illinois.
Normally, the running game getting going is not much of a concern. This is another game where your initial reaction would be to think that. While the 49ers are dominant defending the run, they are very average defending the pass. That is where the health of Ben Roethlisberger comes into play. He is returning from a high ankle sprain to play in this game just one week after sustaining the injury. Maurkice Pouncey is sitting out with the same injury. Roethlisberger's mobility will definitely be hindered and without Pouncey, he's going to need that mobility. If all of that isn't enough, Emmanuel Sanders won't be available for Roethlisberger to throw the ball too either.
Steelers Defense vs. 49ers Offense: While the 49ers are the owners of the league's top scoring defense, the Steelers are just below them in that category. The Steelers allow just a little over one point more a game than the 49ers do. That's where the advantage comes in for the Steelers. With all things being equal, the 49ers' offense is much easier to stop than the Steelers'.
The 49ers kind of give you a look offensively of the Steelers of old. They run the ball effectively. They tell you they are going to run it and they do it anyway. They force you to stop it. They rely on their quarterback to manage the game and not make mistakes which Alex Smith has done effectively. They rank near the bottom of the league in passing offense but Smith has only thrown five interceptions this season. This brand of offense is successful based on taking care of the ball and Smith has been able to do that.
Frank Gore. He will likely see 25 carries regardless of the situation. He is their horse. However, Smith may have the opportunity to have more success against the league's top pass defense than he normally would. James Harrison will not be playing in this game while he serves a one game suspension for his helmet to helmet hit on Colt McCoy last week. Also, Troy Polamalu is nursing an injury that has held him out of practice. While he has played hurt before, we have seen in the past that he is not close to the same player when he does so.
Prediction: At the beginning of the week I had the Pittsburgh Steelers winning this game. Nothing from an injury or strategy standpoint has caused me to change my mind. My issue is how everything set up so perfectly on Sunday. The Houston Texans went out and got handled by the Carolina Panthers. The Ravens laid an egg against the Chargers. All the Steelers have to do is win. It just all sets up to be a huge letdown. I hope I'm wrong. 49ers 17, Steelers 13.