Niners strike down Steelers

Fourteen seconds can pass in a flash on a football field. But that's all the time it took for the 49ers to strike with lightning force Monday night and finally culminate their arduous climb back to .500. Amid the bright lights of national television and a poignant halftime ceremony to honor one of the franchise's all-time greats, the Niners rolled the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-14, breaking open a tight game with big-play touchdowns on back-to-back snaps in the third quarter.

"That was huge," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said of the key stretch late in the third period that turned a 10-7 San Francisco lead into a sudden 24-7 advantage. "We won the game in that period of time right there."

Until that point, the Steelers had hung around all evening, creeping within three points despite being handled readily by San Francisco the entire first half. But any questions about the Niners allowing Pittsburgh to hang until the end of this one came to a sudden halt during a spectacular sequence that took just 14 ticks off the clock.

That's when Kevan Barlow, on his way to a career-high 98 yards rushing on just eight carries, turned an ordinary off-tackle carry into an explosive, cutback, 78-yard scoring jaunt that was San Francisco's longest running play five seasons, giving back to the 49ers the same 10-point lead they had enjoyed at halftime.

That lead grew larger in a hurry.

The Niners recovered Antwaan Randle El's fumble on the ensuing kickoff and, on the next play from scrimmage, quarterback Tim Rattay connected with fullback Fred Beasley on a well-conceived 28-yard touchdown strike to put San Francisco in firm command.

Fourteen seconds, 14 points.

And just like that, the 49ers were on their way to their first winning streak of the season, stringing together back-to-back victories for the first time since last December, and climbing back into the NFC playoff picture with a 5-5 record with six games to play.

It was another complete game for the 49ers, who got poised leadership, smooth direction and an assortment of big plays from Rattay. Adding more fuel to a smoldering quarterback controversy, Rattay completed 21 of 27 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns, including a 61-yard bomb to Terrell Owens that opened the scoring midway through the first period.

"I think it all just started with running the ball," Rattay said. "Our offensive line just dominated the game."

Owens, whose blocking wiped out two Pittsburgh defenders at the end of Barlow's touchdown run, had one of his biggest games of the year with eight receptions for 155 yards. But it was the running of Barlow and Garrison Hearst that set the tone as the Niners pounded for 169 yards on the ground. Hearst contributed 67 yards to the effort.

Except for a few lapses in pass coverage, the Niners also came up with a big defensive effort that would have made the man the team honored at halftime proud. Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame safety who was San Francisco's defensive leader during the team's 1980s heyday, had his No. 42 jersey retired by the team at halftime.

By then, the Niners had blanked the Steelers 10-0 and held them to just 125 yards of offense. Pittsburgh padded that total in the second half as the Steelers passed frantically from behind, but it had no effect on the outcome.

"Across the board, not just specifically one position, every man played a great game," Niners offensive tackle Scott Gragg said. "From the protection up front, to the running backs, to the receivers and our defense, it was outstanding. Across the board, it was a well-planned, well-executed game."

Now the Niners have to make it a sustained effort they can carry through December. They play four of their next five games on the road as they attempt to use their climb back to .500 as a springboard for a playoff run down the stretch.

"We are where we are," said safety Tony Parrish, who had several crunching hits and knocked away three passes. "We're 5-5. We can't look back at what's happened in the past. We have to go forward, take it week by week. And that has us getting ready now for Green Bay on a short week."


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