Monday Night Football. James Farrier was on Rome is Burning on Thursday afternoon and was asked if after all this time in the NFL if he still gets fired up playing in prime time and he went on for a few minutes talking about how he, and the team, still gets unreal pumped for prime time games. The whole nation is watching you and you are the only game on TV. The Steelers haven’t played since last Thursday and I am sure they are chomping at the bit to get back on the field.
Coming into the season if I told you that the 10-3 Steelers would be going to San Francisco to play the 10-3 49ers what would you have said? You probably would have bet me a ton of money that the 49ers weren’t going to be this good and that this game might have just been the first step of a Steelers trip to the top of the AFC and clinching up the AFC North. Fact is that the Steelers are going to need some help to win the AFC North and they will have to win out while the 49ers are fighting for home field advantage after already winning the NFC West. There are usually a few teams each year which come out and surprise you and this year it is the 49ers.
It should be a fun game to watch because not too often over the past couple of years can we play an NFC team this late in the season that was actually good and already in the playoffs. I would imagine that the 49ers are going to be geeked up for this game after the loss to the Cardinals and the 49ers are calling for a Red Out for the game tomorrow. You know there are going to be some terrible towels flying around and hopefully they can be heard on the TV.
Let’s get to the stats.
Pittsburgh 14, Cleveland 3
Passing: Roethlisberger - 16/21, 280 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Mendenhall - 18 carries, 76 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Brown - 5 rec, 151 yards, 1 TD
Arizona 21, San Francisco 19
Passing: Smith - 18/37, 175 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Gore - 10 carries, 72 yards, 1 TD
Receiving: Crabtree - 7 rec, 63 yards, 0 TD
All-Time Record vs. San Francisco: 9-10 (0-0 Playoffs)
Last Five Meetings
Sept. 23, 2007 - Pittsburgh 37, San Francisco 16
Nov. 17, 2003 - San Francisco 30, Pittsburgh 14
Nov. 7, 1999 - Pittsburgh 27, San Francisco 6
Dec. 15, 1996 - San Francisco 25, Pittsburgh 15
Sept. 5, 1993 - San Francisco 24. Pittsburgh 13
Offense (rank in NFL)
Pittsburgh: 371.6 yards/game (11th)
San Francisco: 309.0 yards/game (26th)
Pittsburgh: 257.1 yards/game (9th)
San Francisco: 182.1 yards/game (29th)
Pittsburgh: 114.5 yards/game (17th)
San Francisco: 126.9 yards/game (7th)
Pittsburgh: 21.7 points/game (19th)
San Francisco: 23.6 points/game (12th)
Pittsburgh: 276.1 yards/game (2nd)
San Francisco: 305.1 yards/game (5th)
Pittsburgh: 179.1 yards/game (1st)
San Francisco: 234.5 yards/game (18th)
Pittsburgh: 97.0 yards/game (6th)
San Francisco: 70.5 yards/game (1st)
Pittsburgh: 15.2 points/game (2nd)
San Francisco: 14.0 points/game (1st)
Hit the jump for a closer look at the San Francisco 49ers
If I were sitting down and making a list of quarterbacks that didn’t scare me I think that Alex Smith would firmly make that list. Now don’t get me wrong Smith has quarterbacked this team to a 10-3 record but he isn’t doing that by going out and completing a ton of passes or putting the team on his back. There is nothing wrong with that except for the fact that if you shut down the run game or the defense doesn’t have the best game then you are going to struggle. The case in point would be the contest that Smith had against the Ravens on Thanksgiving night where he was forced to throw the football and just couldn’t get anything done.
Smith is coming off a pretty tough game against the Cardinals where the 49ers fell 21-19 and this was one of those games where Smith was forced to throw the football. He had a season-high 37 attempts and only was able to complete 18 of them for 175 yards and didn’t find the end zone. Without making you do any math that works out to a season low 4.73 yard per attempt average and 49% completion percentage. That is not going to win you many games and against a pretty average Cardinals defense that might have 49ers fans worried.
Overall Smith is completing just under 62% of his passes which is pretty average and also had a 7.17 yard per attempt average which ranks 16th in the league among qualified quarterbacks. He isn’t going to get het ball down the field and he only has a season long pass of 56 yards. While he isn’t pushing the ball down the field a lot he is taking care of the football as he only has five interceptions on the season. A lot can be said about not throwing for a lot of yard or taking the “check down” approach but if you aren’t turning the football over then you are going to give your team a good chance of winning. Smith has not thrown more than one interception in a game this season.
While passing yards aren’t the end all be all of making the offense run you typically run into a 300 yard passing game at some point in the season. Not Alex Smith. He only has three games this season where he has thrown for more than 250 yards with his season high being a 291 yard performance in a one point win over Philadelphia. On the other side of that he has seven games this year where he has failed to throw for more than 180 yards. Woof.
When we look at the advanced stats we see that Smith is about average in those also. He ranks 15th in the league in defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) at 491 which basically gives the value of the quarterback's performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. Smith also ranks 15th with a 8.4% defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA). This number represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense. I will be referring to both stats in the post but the simple version of the two is that DYAR represents a player with more total value and DVOA represents a player with more value per play. Smith is about average in both situations. Not too scary in my book.
The ground game is what has propelled this football team all season and coupled with a really strong defense this is a really good football team where they don’t need their quarterback to do a lot and try to win games through the air. The mainstay in the 49ers ground game is Frank Gore and is showing that he is one of the best backs so far this season. He already had reached the 1,000 yard mark with 1,054 yards on 234 carries for a healthy 4.5 yard per carry average.
When looking at Gore’s year it is really a roller coaster ride with highs and lows that come in streaks. Gore struggled to start the season as he couldn’t even get more than 60 yards rushing and had a yard per carry average less than 3.0 and only had a long run of 16 yards and scored a mere one touchdown.
After the struggle of the first three games Gore really became the back that most expected him to be this year with five straight 100 yard rushing games and scored a touchdown in all but one of those games. The big game was a 15 carry, 141 yard performance against the Lions. During those fives games the 49ers won all five of them as he averaged over 5.5 yards per carry in each of those games.
Since then Gore has yet to run for 100 yards and his final two games have gone for 72 and 73 yards. He only has one touchdown in the last six games and in his last four he is only averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Not really as strong and in turn they have lost two of the last three games.
While the numbers will say that Gore is having a nice season he nearly ranks dead last in both DYAR and DVOA, ranking 35th in both statistics. His -5 DYAR and -9.2% are only above Daniel Thomas, Thomas Jones and Chris Johnson this season and just below Peyton Hillis who has been pretty bad this season. Gore also ranks 33rd in the league with a 42% success rate which represents the player's consistency, measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays. What seems like a good year by the raw numbers turns out is not an overly productive year.
Gore’s backup is rookie Kendall Hunter out of Oklahoma State and so far this season he’s carried the ball 82 times for 322 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Hunter has one game this season where he has carried the ball more than 10 times and that was in a win over the Cardinals on November 20th when he had 27 yards on 11 carries. Hunter will probably see some time against the Steelers and should get anywhere between six and nine carries. He has one game over 50 yards rushing and that was when he went for 65 yards on nine carries against the Bucs way back in early October. Typically when you think of the backup running back you think of a change up guy that can catch the ball out of the backfield but Hunter only has 11 catches on the season so I wouldn’t expect too much out of him in that aspect. Hunter also sports a 1 DYAR and a -8.8% DVOA so I wouldn’t worry too much when he gets into the game.
Three years ago the 49ers took Michael Crabtree out of Texas Tech and so far he hasn’t played up the ability. Last year he made only 55 catches for 741 yards and six touchdowns. This year he’s already matched the 55 catch total but only has 668 yards to show for it while only catching two touchdown passes in 12 games.
Crabtree is a physically gifted player but still looks as if he is still trying to figure out the receiver position. Granted, it doesn’t help to have Alex Smith throwing you the football but he only has one game where he has more than 100 receiving yards and only has four separate games with more than five catches. On a typical day Crabtree is going to make five catches for about 60 yards and judging by his two total touchdowns he isn’t going to be a huge threat in the red zone.
Last week Crabtree had seven catches but was largely limited to only 63 yards. When the 49ers played the Ravens on Thanksgiving he had six catches for only 54 yards and no scores. In between that he made only four catches but it was for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Rams. I am not going to say the Rams don’t have a good secondary, but the Rams don’t have a good secondary. I would expect Ike Taylor to be on Crabtree for much of the game and after a few so-so games it would be great to see Ike bounce back.
Crabtree is the highest ranking 49er on the advanced stat metrics but he is still way down on the list. HE ranks 46th among qualified receivers with a 79DYAR and is even worse with a -1.4% DVOA which is good for 49th in the league. Not very solid as your number one wide out.
The most dangerous pass catcher on the team isn’t even a receiver. Tight end Vernon Davis is really a freak specimine from the tight end position and might be the best athelete on this 49ers team. In the past two seasons he has caught over 900 yards and over 50 catches. In 2009 he caught 13 touchdown passes and last year he caught seven. This year he has 49 catches for 548 yards and five touchdown catches. A modest year yardage wise but is still a threat to beat you if he gets matched up on a linebacker. He only has one 100 yard day which was in week three and combined in the last three weeks he has 10 catches for 102 yards so he use has been neutralized to some degree.
Davis doesn’t stack up all that well against his peers as he ranks 19th among qualified tight ends with a 43 DYAR and a worse 22nd in DVOA with 2.4%. Davis does rank a little bit higher on the list with a solid 72% catch rate but his overall value this season isn’t where you would expect it to be after two really solid seasons the past two years. I wouldn’t sleep on Davis though as he can make a few plays that wreck havoc on the defense.
Josh Morgan (who?) and Ted Ginn are the third and fourth leading receivers, respectfully, but don’t really scare me a whole bunch. Morgan has only 15 catches on the year for 220 yards and a touchdown and Ginn has 206 yards on only 18 catches. Nothing to see here.
From left to right the 49ers line reads as Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Adam Snyder and Anthony Davis. Davis and Iupati are both second year guys while every other member of the offensive line has more than five years of experience with Goodwin have 10 years under his belt. Despite the experience on the line they are not all that solid protecting Smith. San Francisco ranks 29th in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 9.1% which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. The 49ers have given up 39 sacks on the season which when put in perspective is two more than a Steelers offensive line that has almost a new combination ever week.
Running the football hasn’t been overly good at running the football where they rank 24th in adjusted line yards (ALY) which is a formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages: losses: 120% value, 0-4 Yards: 100% value, 5-10 Yards: 50% value, 11+ Yards: 0% value. These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. San Francisco’s ALY is 3.89 which is just below the Browns running the football.
The 49ers also aren’t running the ball very well in short yardage and goal to go situations as they rank 20th in the league with a 20% stuffed ranking which is the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. They are even worse in terms of power success (Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer.) where they rank 31st in the league at 47%. Not good for the 49ers.
The 49ers don’t have a tendency when running the football but they do like to get out on the edges. A total of 27% of the team’s runs are off either the left (15%) or right (12%) ends and they are only one of 12 teams that have 10% or more of their runs going off each ends. The 49ers are right below the league average as they run up the middle or off the guard 45% of the time (NFL average 49%) but they do favor running to the left tackle (17%) than the right tackle (11%). They are only one of nine teams to run for at least 10% in each of the five zones on the offensive line according to Football Outsiders. That is a pretty balanced run attack and even though they aren’t particularly successful they can keep the defense guessing.
The 49ers have the most success running off left tackle Joe Staley where they rank fifth in the league with a ALY of 4.68 which is well above the league average of 4.08. They are also successful running off the right end where there 4.95 ALY is fourth in the league and well over a yard over the NFL average. They do struggle running up the middle where they rank 31st in the league with a ALY of 3.33. This could be a reason they struggle so badly in short yardage situation.
The San Francisco 49ers might not be all that capable on offense, especially if the run game isn’t going, but the defense can more than make up for it as they can get after the quarterback and create turnovers. The 49ers have three players with six sacks or more and have 32 as a team and they have intercepted 18 passes with two players having five each and recovered 13 fumbles. Creating short fields for the offense is key for this team and nothing does that better than forcing turnovers.
Overall the 49ers have the third ranked defense according to their DVOA at -11.5%. Remember that with DVOA positive percentages represent yards so on defense you want to be negative so you can see they have been very good this year. They also rank fourth in the league in Weighted Defensive DVOA at -11.1% which is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important. This just shows that the 49ers defense has not just beat up on teams early in the year with the lockout holding the offenses back but they have been consistent down the stretch playing great defense. The 49ers are best against the run in the entire league with a -34.4% DVOA and ninth against the pass at 2.5% so all around there doesn’t seem to be a huge weakness to the team.
Former Penn State linebacker NaVorro Bowman is the leading tackler on the team from his linebacker position with 113 tackles (88 solo) on the season. Bowman was a pretty solid linebacker in the tackle department through the first half of the season but has really tailed off since he blew up with 15 tackles against the New York Giants on November 13. Since that time he has played in four games and had three, nine, six and three tackles in those games with the nine tackle game coming on Thanksgiving day against the Ravens. He hasn’t recorded a sack yet this season but has recovered three fumbles and defended six passes.
The heart and soul of the defense is linebacker Patrick Willis but there is a huge question on whether he is going to be able to play in this game. He has a hamstring injury which is real touch and go and he didn’t play last week so it should be interesting to see if he can get back into the lineup against the Steelers on Monday night. He is now in his fifth season and the first four years in the league he has over 125 tackles and with two sacks this season he has 17 in his career and 12 forced fumbles (four in 2011). He is a freakishly athletic linebacker that makes plays all over the field. He might not have the huge sack numbers or force the most turnovers or have the most tackles (93) but it will be a huge advantage to the Steelers offense if he doesn’t play.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith has been the main pass rushing threat for the team this season as he ranks eighth in the NFL with 10.5 sacks and forcing a pair of fumbles. The rookie from Missouri has three sacks in his past two games and has four different games with more than one sack. This will be the guy that the Steelers need to maybe chip with a back but he won’t be the only guy that can get to the quarterback. Opposite outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks has six sacks on the season while defensive tackle Justin Smith has 6.5 sacks to give the 49ers a trio of pass rushers that could feast on the offensive line if they are not on point.
The defensive backfield is led by free safety Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers who each have five interceptions on the season while Rogers leads the team with 15 pass defended and has scored the team’s only defensive touchdown on the season.
The defensive backfield can be had as they aren’t great in the secondary but as I spoke above a good pass rush can change that in an instant. According to DVOA the 49ers are pretty average against wide receivers where they rank 11th with a 9.4% DVOA against the opposing top receiver and 10th with a -19.6% DVOA against third and fourth receivers. Where they buckle down a little bit is against an opponent’s second receiver where they rank sixth in the league with a -18.1% DVOA. Those are pretty average numbers but I think this might be a little misleading depending on who you would classify the number two receiver for the Steelers. I would assume that Football Outsiders use Mike Wallace as the number one receiver on the team due to ranking second in DVOA and DYAR among qualified receivers so that leaves Antonio Brown who ranks 23rd and 16th, respectively, in those areas. Brown has been hammering teams and while this might depend on who the quarterback is the Steelers have a deep WR pool that can make you pay no matter who is the number one or two receiver.
The San Francisco defensive line has the second best ALY among teams at 3.49 only behind the Bears while ranking as the top team in terms of power success against (36%). In short yardage situations it is very hard to run against the 49ers but they don’t do a great job at tackling runner behind the line of scrimmage. While it is very tough to get that one or two yards against them you have a pretty decent chance of gaining positive yards on any given run play. They rank 29th in the league with a 16% stuffed rate which is key for the Steelers, especially if Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t play, because the Steelers can’t afford to be in second or third and long plays.
-The big question entering the game is the status on Ben Roethlisberger. As you [probably] know Ben has a high ankle sprain in his left foot that he hurt in the first half of the Thursday night contest against the Browns. He did come back and finish the game but was very limited in what he could do and after sleeping that night the ankle has tightened up and he was still in a walking boot as of Thursday. Bruce Arians said that it was going to be a true game time decision to whether Ben would play as they will see how his mobility was in pregame warm-ups and then decide from there if he was going to play or not. A high ankle sprain is usually at least two weeks and can be as many as six so this would really be pushing it for him to get out there any play. To be honest if he doesn’t play this week then I don’t see him playing next week and at that rate I would hold him out against the Browns on New Year’s Day just to keep him fresh for the playoffs.
-If Ben can’t go then it is going to be Charlie Batch’s game to win or lose. Dennis Dixon is going to be the backup and according to Arians he will only see time in the game if Batch gets hurt. Since 2009 Batch has only attempted 53 passes so it’s not like he has been a lot of action in his time so I am not really sure what to expect. He did start two games last year while Ben was suspended and actually played some pretty good football. He completed nearly 60% of his throws for 352 yards and three touchdowns in his brief stint as quarterback. I would think that Batch isn’t going to be asked to be the savior of the offense for this game and any other game he might start to end the season but just taking care of the football would be huge in my book.
-That being said the running game is going to have to play even more a part of the game even if Roethlisberger is able to play. On the year the Steelers are averaging almost 115 yards per game which ranks 17th in the league but in the last three games they are averaging over 130 yards per contest. Over the last three games they are running the ball almost 30 times per game so they are getting to it. The 49ers are a great run defense so this isn’t going to be easy like it was against the Browns but if the offensive line can get the run game going it will be very good. Like I said they need this even if Ben is playing because if he does play he is not going to be mobile by any stretch of the imagination so the threat of play action is going to be a must. After not starting out the season so hot the Steelers rank 10th in rush offense with a 7.8% DVOA so it will be interesting to see how they attack the 49ers.
-The Steelers defense is going to have to get some pressure on Alex Smith and stop the run. Smith hasn’t played great football this season but if you let him sit back there and not get touched he will eventually find someone open, but that goes with any QB. I know both of those statements see like “duh” type of statements but with how good the 49ers defense has been the Steelers can’t afford to give up huge chunks of yardage to Smith or get lax in the run defense. I don’t think they would do either but it still must be said. The Steelers have been getting after the quarterback at a pretty decent clip with 30 sacks and the eighth best adjusted sack rate in the NFL at 7.6%. Some people have got on the Steelers for the lack of pressure but the second half of the year they have really ramped it up and played some good defense.
-In close games it usually comes down to the little things and that usually is whichever team doesn’t turn the ball over, plays solid special teams and doesn’t commit stupid penalties. San Francisco ranks 26th in the league with over seven penalties a game for over 62 yards. The Steelers on the other hand are 16th in the league with just over six penalties a game with just under 54 yards of penalties. The Steelers have been a little penalty prone in the recent past with 12 in their game against the Browns and over seven a game in the last three. If they can keep things in check and play a clean game it will go a long way in giving them a chance to win, no matter who plays.
-This game could have a totally different complexion depending on the Baltimore Ravens game. Not saying I don’t want the Steelers to win but if the Chargers are able to take down the Ravens the night before on Sunday Night Football then this game is uber huge for the Steelers to win in order to be in the driver’s seat for the AFC North and possibly the top seed in the AFC playoffs. If the Ravens beat the Chargers then I think it is easier for me to swallow Ben not playing because I don’t see the Ravens losing after Sunday night even if the Bengals have something to play for. I am not saying that the Steelers have to play Ben if the Ravens lose but it is pretty interesting to think about. If the Ravens lose then I don’t think you should play Ben even if he is healthy enough to go out there and do most things. Just isn’t worth it to be in the long run. The Ravens game is interesting because you know the Steelers players are going to be paying attention to that and if the Ravens do lose they are going to come out even more fired up.
PREDICTION – This is going to be a real tough game for the Steelers and an even harder on to pick because of the uncertainty of a lot of key players for the Steelers. That being said I think the defense is going to go out there with something to prove and create a few turnovers. They are going to force the 49ers to throw the football to win and I don’t think Alex Smith is going to be able to beat a team of the Steelers quality on his own. I also don’t think that Charlie Batch is going to be able to do a whole ton but I think he can do enough to win. Steelers 20, 49ers 17.