So close yet so far for 49ers

They seemed so close yet ultimately ended up so far away. That's the separation that exists between the 49ers & Pittsburgh Steelers, who showed San Francisco what being a good team is all about Sunday at Heinz Field. The Niners matched punches with Pittsburgh for three quarters, but were floored at the finish of a 37-16 beatdown that left no doubt which team should be unbeaten and which shouldn't.

In moving to 3-0 and abruptly halting San Francisco's best start since 1998, the Steelers scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams to produce a pretty thorough handling of a 49ers team that challenged Pittsburgh for all too long before finally withering to the power and pressure provided by a better team.

The 49ers trailed 17-9 entering the fourth quarter, still a one-possession game, and they could have been even closer without a few breaks and questionable officiating calls going against them. With the offense finally showing signs of awakening against the best defense it has faced this year, San Francisco was hanging around and making a game of it.

"Going into the fourth quarter, we were still right there and ready to make a push," said Marques Douglas, the 49ers' defensive star from his end position with a game-high eight tackles and half a sack. "But once again, you have to give credit to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They came out and played a physical game of fourth-quarter football."

And that settled the issue in emphatic fashion. Jeff Reed kicked his second field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter, added his third 10 minutes later, then the Steelers put away the game in the final four minutes with Bryant McFadden's 50-interception return for a touchdown and Najah Davenport's garbage-time 39-yard touchdown run.

The 20-point fourth quarter allowed the Steelers to finish with a lopsided margin of victory after a game in which they clearly held the upper hand, but couldn't put away a plucky San Francisco team that showed some resilience on both sides of the ball.

"You could kind of feel it on the sidelines that something was going to happen, and it was that kind of game for three quarters," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "But in the fourth quarter, I think it kind of got out of hand for us. We have no excuses, really. We didn't play the kind of game we need to play to win."

But the 49ers came out playing that way, with their offense – ranked 32nd and dead last in the NFL entering the game – taking the opening kickoff and driving 61 yards in 11 plays to a first down at the Pittsburgh 14-yard line. The drive included two third-down conversions and a 31-yard hitch pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis that immediately showed San Francisco's intention – and need – to get the young tight end involved the game.

In a sign of things to come, Pittsburgh's defensive front wall stoned Frank Gore for no gain on first down, and a pressured Smith threw incomplete to Davis on the next two plays. Still, the 49ers were happy to draw first blood and settle for Joe Nedney's 32-yard field goal. It was the first time Pittsburgh had trailed all season – and also the first points the Steelers had allowed in the first half all season.

But that warm and fuzzy feeling lasted all of 15 seconds for the 49ers.

Allen Rossum, acquired in a trade with Atlanta at the beginning of this month, took the ensuing kickoff at the 2-yard line and burst up the middle through a wide hole that opened in front him. He ran right through and past San Francisco's coverage team, finishing his 98-yard romp to the end zone untouched.

That swung the momentum immediately back to the home team. And even though the 49ers got the ball back on Pittsburgh's second offensive play when Hannibal Navies hit and stripped Ben Roethlisberger, giving San Francisco the ball at the Pittsburgh 22, the tone for the afternoon was set when the Steelers stopped the 49ers again at the 4, holding them to a 22-yard Nedney field goal that allowed Pittsburgh to hold the lead.

The Steelers then proceeded to push the 49ers around in the trenches, bottling up San Francisco rushing game – Frank Gore finished with just 39 yards rushing on 14 carries – and also opening holes in San Francisco's defensive for Willie Parker to scoot through. Parker rushed for 133 yards on 24 carries to keep the Pittsburgh offense moving efficiently, his third consecutive 100-yard game to begin the season.

"They were good up front, you have to give credit to them, but we were not scared of them," Douglas said. "We wanted to pressure their quarterback, and I think we did that. We wanted to make plays and stop their running back, and I think we came up short on that."

The 49ers also came up short on perhaps the game's pivotal play late in the third quarter. Facing a third-and-13 after reaching the Pittsburgh 32, Smith fired over the middle and hit Davis with a strike to the 10, where Davis was drilled low by safety Troy Polamalu and flipped in the air. As he landed on his shoulder, the ball popped into the air and was grabbed by safety Ryan Clark, who returned it 43 yards into San Francisco territory.

But replays clearly appeared to indicate that Davis was down by contact before the ball came out, and the 49ers should have it first-and-goal at the 10. Nolan immediately threw the red challenge flag.

But after taking his allotted minutes to look at the replay monitor, referee Gerry Austin came up with a strange conclusion. He ruled the pass incomplete – which seemed the most unlikely ruling possible – and seemed to contradict himself when explaining to a pool reporter that Davis had "one foot and a toe on the other one" down on the ground when the ball came out.

After the delay, the Niners were back at the 32 with a fourth down, and Nedney hit a 49-yard field goal to make it 17-9 heading into the final quarter.

But the Niners couldn't make hay on offense and Jeff Reed made field goals on Pittsburgh's next two possesions. Down 23-9, Smith came out firing with five minutes remaining. But after reaching the San Francisco 42, he was intercepted by McFadden on third down after a pattern miscommunication with receiver Taylor Jacobs, and McFadden weaved his way through traffic to take back the pick into the end zone.

With the game out of reach, Smith took the 49ers 66 yards in three plays for a quick touchdown, throwing his first scoring pass of the season to Jacobs from 21 yards out. It was too little, too late. Though Smith showed some spark in the passing game with a season-high 209 yards on 17 of 35 passing, the offense again struggled, particularly on the ground, where defending NFC rushing champion Gore had his lowest rushing total since 2005.

"Our offense, we've got to play better," Gore said. "I feel like the defense is doing their job but the offense is not making any plays. We're not helping ourselves. I feel that if our offense would have capitalized more, we would have had a better chance to win the game."

It's a theory that's difficult to argue. It was the Steelers who were the capitalizers Sunday, showing the 49ers how it's done, a lesson Nolan hopes they take to both heart and mind.

"In order for us to get better, we have to put this one on the shelf," Nolan said. "We can get better than this as a football team, and I'm looking forward to that. We'll learn a lot from this game. We won't dismiss this loss."

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