49ers/Steelers: Thumbs up and thumbs down
Thumbs down: Monday's two power outages at Candlestick Park leaves absolutely no doubt that the 49ers need a new stadium – and soon. Maybe it wasn't the old concrete bowl's fault, considering a transformer blew outside the stadium, but just the same, the best days of Candlestick Park are well behind us, and Monday's fiasco on a national stage just magnified the obvious.
Thumbs up: That said, kudos to those in charge for restoring order, getting the lights back on and the game back on track in a timely fashion. After a bizarre five minutes of total darkness, the lights got back on and order was quickly restored, delaying the official start of the game by only 20 minutes. Given the circumstances, it could have been much worse. The second delay lasted only 15 minutes before the game was resumed.
Thumbs up: Give it up once more for the NFL's No. 1-ranked rushing defense as the Niners became the first team in league history to not allow a touchdown in the first 14 games of a season. San Francisco also stretched its streak of consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher to 36, forcing the Steelers to go to the air, where they had mixed results and never got close to the San Francisco end zone.
Thumbs up: The Steelers finished with 389 total yards, but never has that big a total looked so hollow. The 49ers allowed the Pittsburgh offense to get past the San Francisco 30-yard line just once, and held a quality offense that played in the Super Bowl last season to a measly three points. The 49ers lowered their NFL-leading total of fewest points allowed to 13.2 per game, which is the lowest in team history.
Thumbs up: Speaking of record nights… It may have been a routine night for David Akers, but his two field goals and PAT kick gave him 143 points for the season, moving him past Jerry Rice's 138 points scored in 1987 for the most points in a season in 49ers history.
Thumbs up: Call it the Vernon Davis touchdown drive. The 49ers finally made good use of their lethal weapon at tight end to take control of the game late in the third quarter, when Davis had two big-play catches of 31 and 21 yards to take the 49ers down the field, somersaulting into the end zone on the latter. Davis was called out at the 1-yard line on that play, a result that was upheld by review after the Niners challenged, but he came back with a 1-yard TD grab on the next play to give San Francisco's the game's first touchdown. Davis was back in action as a central figure in the Niners' passing game, finishing with a game-high six receptions for 72 yards. And that's a very, very good thing.
Thumbs up: With opponents coming relentlessly after quarterback Alex Smith the past month, you had to wonder why the Niners weren't attempting to counterbalance that with more screen passes – or any screen passes, for that matter – particularly with what Kendall Hunter can do in the open field. They picked a perfect time to do it Monday with a late-developing screen to Hunter that went for 27 yards and set up Davis' back-to-back catches and got the Niners out of a first-and-20 hole after being pushed back into San Francisco territory. Hunter sizzled in the open field for 30 yards after the catch.
Thumbs down: Ted Ginn Jr. was twisted down wickedly to the ground on a hard hit by Pittsburgh's Stevenson Sylvester on the second-half kickoff and was taken into the locker room with an ankle injury. Ginn never returned to the game, and he was missed as both a returner and receiver, though the Niners managed fine without him. He'll be missed even more if the injury keeps him out of any games down the stretch.
Thumbs up: Rookie Aldon Smith had another sensational game, overpowering Pittsburgh left tackle Max Starks on several occasions on his way to 2.5 sacks on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a tough guy to bring down even with a bum ankle. That gives Smith 13 sacks for the season with two more games remaining as he continues to climb higher among the NFL's leading sackmasters. Smith now ranks third among the league leaders after setting a new franchise record for most sacks in a season by a rookie.
Thumbs down: Roethlisberger finished with 330 yards passing, a total inflated by his ability to find the soft spots in San Francisco's intermediate coverage. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks was twice conspicuously exposed in coverage as his lack of awareness in getting good depth on his drops resulted in wide-open receiving targets and plays that went for 36 and 39 yards.
Thumbs up: But what the 49ers giveth in coverage, they also taketh away. San Francisco's secondary came up with three huge interceptions, two of which came on Pittsburgh's first two offensive possessions to help set the tone of the game. Carlos Rogers began the pick party with a goal-line interception after the Steelers had reached the San Francisco 19 on their first drive. Dashon Goldson later matched Rogers' team-leading total with his sixth pick and Tarell Brown later ran down a deep Roethlisberger pass at the San Francisco 1-yard line to punctuate a big night by San Francisco's rangy ballhawks.
Thumbs up: The 49ers also forced Big Ben into a lost fumble, giving them four takeaways for the game. That increased San Francisco turnover differential to plus-25, another category in which the NFL-leading 49ers are running away from the rest of the league.
Thumbs up: The silver lining to Patrick Willis' hamstring injury is it has given Larry Grant an opportunity to simply thrive in his place. Along with his five tackles, Grant was terrific dropping into coverage, knocking down four passes and almost grabbing one of them for an interception. Grant has played like a quality starter in the almost three full games he's played since taking over for Willis.
Thumbs up: With Grant leading the way, the 49ers got their hands on nine more passes Monday, raising their NFL-leading total to 96 passes defensed this season.
Thumbs up: It was another outstanding performance by San Francisco's kick coverage units, which simply shut down Pittsburgh's return game while delivering several crunching hits. To illustrate how good they were, punter Andy Lee had a better net average than gross average on his punts because Pittsburgh returner Antonio Brown actually lost 10 yards trying to bring back two of Lee's punts.
Thumbs up: Monday's outcome may have been the biggest sign yet that the 49ers finally are back and a big-time team in the NFL again. With the bright lights shining, they came through on the big stage against one of the best teams in the NFL, setting the tempo early and then dictating the action throughout the game. As left tackle Joe Staley said afterward, "I never felt like there was any doubt about what the outcome was going to be. We were the more physical team out there." And it was the truth. The 49ers are a serious NFL contender again, and now the whole world knows it.
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