Game breakdown: 49ers/Steelers

Taking a look deep inside Monday night's nationally-televised game between the 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch, NFL rankings for both teams, personnel updates and a look inside both camps before the battle between division leaders in the NFC West and AFC North.

KICKOFF: Monday, 5:30 p.m. PST
SITE: Candlestick Park in San Francisco
SURFACE: Natural grass
RECORDS: 49ers 10-3, 3-1 in NFC West, 8-2 in NFC, 2-1 vs. AFC North; Steelers 10-3, 3-2 in AFC North, 8-3 in AFC, 2-0 vs. NFC West
LAST WEEK: 49ers lost to Arizona Cardinals 21-19; Steelers beat Cleveland Browns 14-3
NFL RANKINGS: 49ers: No. 26 in total offense, No. 5 in total defense. Steelers No. 11 in total offense, No. 2 in total defense
TV: ESPN, Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, John Sutcliffe

SERIES HISTORY: 20th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 10-9. The 49ers are 22-11 in Monday night games at home. Since 1980, the 49ers are second in the league with 20 winning seasons. The Steelers and Patriots are tied for first with 22. The 49ers lead the league with 36 playoff wins in that time frame, the Steelers are second with 34. Pittsburgh disrupted a perfect season for the 49ers in 1984, beating them 20-17 on a 21-yard Gary Anderson field goal with 1:42 left. The teams are 5-5 in San Francisco, where the Steelers lost the last time they visited, 30-14, in 2003. The teams last played in 2007 at Heinz Field, where the Steelers won 37-16.

KEYS TO THE GAME: As QB Ben Roethlisberger continues to deal with a high ankle sprain, the Steelers will prepare Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon. No matter who is under center, Pittsburgh will attempt to get something going early against a 49ers run defense allowing a league-low 3.2 yards per carry. It will be difficult since RB Rashard Mendenhall is most effective between the tackles – playing into the teeth of San Francisco's defense, so at some point the Steelers will need to spread the field and work the secondary. Opposing defense have been attacking 49ers QB Alex Smith, although Pittsburgh will be without OLB James Harrison and could be without OLB LaMarr Woodley. San Francisco needs to get more production from rookie RB Kendall Hunter if it's going to keep ailing Frank Gore fresh for the playoffs. Hunter has 65 yards rushing on 28 carries the past four games (2.3-yard average).

BY THE NUMBERS: 33.4 -- The 49ers' average starting field position, which is first in the NFL. 25-5 -- Pittsburgh's record against NFC teams since 2003, including wins vs. Seattle and Arizona this year. The Steelers play the 49ers and Rams over their next two games.

"I'm studying him right now in my office and he really hasn't made a whole lot of improvement in his mechanics." -- Former Rams and Eagles quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski on assessing 49ers quarterback Alex Smith
"He didn't stomp on nobody, he didn't punch nobody's private area." -- Steelers CB Ike Taylor, on the suspension of LB James Harrison for a helmet-to-helmet hit.

49ERS GAME PLAN: The 49ers have struggled with teams that have speed, particularly at wide receiver. The Steelers have that in abundance, so the defense may play more of their man-2 scheme with their cornerbacks in man coverage and the safeties over the top. However, that does leave the linebackers in man coverage on backs and tight ends. It also means the safeties won't be able to help much in the run game.

STEELERS GAME PLAN: The Steelers may have to run the ball more than usual out of necessity because of their quarterback situation. Even if Ben Roethlisberger can play, that left foot isn't going to allow him to do the things he normally does. On defense, Pittsburgh hopes to do what everybody else has been doing when facing the 49ers: sack Alex Smith. That, too, will be more difficult without James Harrison and maybe without LaMarr Woodley.

--- 49ers CBs Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, who are part of a secondary that gave up three plays of over 40 yards last week, vs. Steelers WRs Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, who are two of the fastest receivers in the league
--- Steelers OTs Marcus Gilbert and Max Starks, two of the biggest tackles in the league, vs. rookie LB Aldon Smith, who has 10.5 sacks on the season
--- Steelers run defense, sixth in the NFL, vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore, who has 1,054 yards and averages 4.5 per carry

--- Rogers and 49ers FS Dashon Goldson, who have 10 interceptions between them, vs. whoever plays quarterback for Pittsburgh.

Inside the camps


Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's high left ankle sprain continues to improve, although not enough to where he can practice and it still remains uncertain whether he will play against the Niners.

Roethlisberger's ankle was casted on Thursday to make a mold so a plastic brace can be made. The idea is for him to wear it inside his shoe at practice and in the game.

"I tell them to do whatever they have to do," said Roethlisberger, whose ankle remains in a walking boot.

"I don't know if it's my decision. I'm going to do everything I can to be out there. It's probably more on them. So if I'm not out there it's probably because they didn't feel comfortable me being out there, protecting myself or whatever it is. They know better than I do. I can just tell them whether I think I can go or not, and I think I can go all the time. I'm going to do everything I can to be out there for this team."

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said the 48 hours before the game should determine a lot, but indicated that it's possible coach Mike Tomlin won't decide until he sees how Roethlisberger is on Monday.

"Adrenalin does funny things sometimes," Arians said. "He doesn't need a whole lot of snaps. You'd like to see him practice just to know he's ready but that decision will be coach's."

If Roethlisberger does not play, Charlie Batch, 37, will make his first start since the fourth game of the 2010 season. Batch has played little and thrown two incompletions in 2011.

"Next man in line, that's always been the motto, whether it's the quarterback, right tackle, left tackle," Arians said. "We won't change anything we do or how we play the game."


Ineffective red-zone offense has raised red alerts this week at 49ers practice. The team usually had two red-zone periods in practice during the week. They've increased that to three while they prepare for Monday's game against the Steelers.

The 49ers have only scored three touchdowns in their last 18 trips inside the opponents' 20 and everything is being called into question, from play-calling to blitz pickup to the running game. Even the pace of offense has been criticized and not by the media, but by the team itself.

"This week we're going to hurry up and get to the line of scrimmage and get set. We've been a little slow in the last weeks at getting in the huddle, getting a play and getting to the line of scrimmage," tight end Delanie Walker said. "We've got to give (quarterback) Alex (Smith) a chance to see the defense so he can make the calls and give the line a better opportunity to see what's going on before we snap the ball."

Another issue is protecting better on blitzes, particularly up the middle. The 49ers allowed 15 pressures last week in which Smith was either sacked or hit. Ten of those came up the middle in the gaps between the guard and center.

"One thing that throws us off is the blitzes," Walker said. "You've got to pick the blitzes up. You've got to give Alex enough time to throw the ball and make the right decisions."

One other thing is finding a red-zone threat. In previous seasons, it's been Walker's cohort, Vernon Davis. However, offensive coordinator Greg Roman intimated that St. Louis doubled Davis in the red zone during the 49ers' Dec. 4 win, and the same thing may have occurred in Arizona when the 49ers plunged into the Cardinals' red zone three times and came away with three field goals.

In 11 red-zone plays, Davis was never targeted. If teams are taking him out, that should open up plays for others, including Walker, who hasn't caught a pass in four games.

"I hear that a lot," Walker said. "I believe in the coaches. I believe in whatever they got set for us. That's going to be a part of what we do this week. Our red zone. It's going to be big, full speed."

Personnel news


--- LB LaMarr Woodley did not practice, but is expected to return to play Monday night. He has missed four of the past five games and played only one quarter in the other because of a hamstring injury.

--- C Maurkice Pouncey did not practice this week because of his high ankle sprain and now it appears he might not play Monday night. Doug Legursky would switch from left guard to center, where he started the last Super Bowl. Trai Essex would start at left guard.

--- WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot) did not practice again and he may not be able to return to play. His injury goes back to surgery he had on the foot in training camp.

--- OT Marcus Gilbert missed practice Thursday because he is ill. He should be fine and ready to go in San Francisco.

--- S Troy Polamalu (hamstring) did not practice Thursday again. He said the plan is for him to practice late in the week and play on Sunday.


--- LB Patrick Willis did not practice this week and is unlikely to play Monday.

--- T Joe Staley (concussion) participated in the morning walk-through but did not practice.

--- LB Larry Grant, who had nine tackles against the Cardinals, will continue to replace Patrick Willis.

--- T Alex Boone would replace Joe Staley, as he did after Staley went out in the first quarter.

--- WR Kyle Williams was fined another $5,000 for having too much white on his socks. This is Williams' second sock violation, but the second-year receiver will appeal because he was not warned.

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