49ers vs. Steelers: Thumbs up & thumbs down

Which way does the thumb turn for tight end Vernon Davis, punter Andy Lee, head referee Gerry Austin, defensive end Marques Douglas, San Francisco's offensive line, offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, Alex Smith getting on the same page with Taylor Jacobs, San Francisco's offense on third down and in the red zone, safety Mark Roman and a road winning streak that comes to an end? Check inside.

Thumbs up: The 49ers made a point to get Vernon Davis involved in the offense, and he didn't disappoint, pulling in four receptions for 56 yards, including a nice 31-yard ramble after taking a hitch pass on San Francisco's first offensive possession, setting up the game's first points. Davis also had perhaps his biggest play of the day taken away by the officials, who ruled his tough 22-yard catch over the middle on third-and-13 an incompletion when in fact replays clearly indicated Davis had held onto the ball after taking a wicked hit from safety Troy Polamalu. That would have given the Niners the ball at the 10 trailing by just eight points. Making Davis a big part of the offensive plan like Sunday should be a must the remainder of the season.

Thumbs down: Davis suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee on the hit from Polamalu, and the injury figures to keep him out of the next two games leading up to San Francisco's bye week. The last thing the Niners' struggling offense needs is to lose this guy, who helps the team immensely not only with the ball in his hands but also with his blocking. Davis also dropped a third-down pass Sunday, but he made up for that with the plays he did make.

Thumbs up: In what is becoming a congratulatory exercise each week, punter Andy Lee was simply tremendous and did his part to keep San Francisco in the game. Lee sailed his first punt 58 yards, boomed his second 66 yards, his third 63 yards and his fourth 59 yards. Lee had a gaudy 61.5-yard average at halftime, and finished the game with a 57.2 average and a 46.0 net – simply game-impacting numbers. The Steelers started their drives after Lee punts, on average, from their own 16-yard line.

Thumbs down: A big thumbs down to head referee Gerry Austin, who managed to get it as wrong as it could be on one of the game's most consequential plays, at least as far as the 49ers are concerned. He absolutely bungled the call on Davis' catch after the replay challenge, and his explanation afterwards sounded a lot like an official putting his foot in his mouth. Austin's officiating crew also missed an obvious intentional grounding call on Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who clearly was still trapped in the pocket when he dumped off a pass to the sideline with no Steeler anywhere to be found in the third quarter. The non-call allowed Pittsburgh to get a field goal out of a drive that would have been stopped with the penalty.

Thumbs up: Marques Douglas has been answering the call since the season began, but the unsung defensive end out-did himself Sunday when he played like a man possessed and spent a lot of time in the Pittsburgh backfield. Douglas finished with a game-high eight tackles and also had half a sack as he continues to be a force in the front wall of San Francisco's 3-4 defense. He now leads all San Francisco defensive linemen and ranks third on the team with 21 tackles.

Thumbs down: What entered the season as one of the 49ers' primary strengths is now suddenly and worrisomely looking like a problem. San Francisco's offensive line had acceptable protection (except for a few stunts and delayed blitzes) of Alex Smith against a very aggressive Pittsburgh defense that pressured relentlessly, but the blocking in the run game again was weak, particularly in the interior, where the 49ers couldn't push Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton off the ball. The San Francisco line failed to finish blocks and get to the second level against a Pittsburgh front that beat them off the ball and up the field. No wonder Frank Gore isn't going anywhere.

Thumbs up: Jim Hostler has been getting hammered from all corners in the early going of his first go-around as a NFL offensive coordinator, but he came up with a pretty sound and creative game plan against one of the league's best defenses. Hostler had Alex Smith set up in the shotgun and rolled him out, ran a double-reverse, threw a hitch pass to Vernon Davis and finally got the young tight end involved while having Smith throw 35 passes. And he opened up the playbook from the start, which allowed the 49ers to deal the game's first blows on their opening possession.

Thumbs down: Nobody pointed fingers at each other afterward, but Alex Smith needs to get on the same page with third wideout Taylor Jacobs, who finally caught his first two passes of the season Sunday, including working his way open in the corner of the end zone for a garbage-time 21-yard touchdown reception that was San Francisco's first scoring pass of the season. But just two minutes previously, Jacobs turned in on a short pattern when Smith thought he was turning out, with Smith throwing before Jacobs' break on a timing route. The result was Pittsburgh cornerback Bryant McFadden sitting in the spot Smith thought Jacobs would be, and McFadden took back the pass thrown right into his hands 50 yards for a game-clinching touchdown. Smith has had those kind of problems several times with his receivers this year, and Jacobs seems to be the biggest culprit.

Thumbs up: Mark Roman is displaying a physical element at free safety and is timing his breaks on the ball well. Perhaps better suited to strong safety, he also is playing instinctive and smart and is putting himself in position to make plays. His big hit on Hines Ward to break up a third-and-10 pass to end Pittsburgh's opening possession of the second half put the Steelers' best receiver on the bench and was next to vicious. But it was a perfectly legal blow as Roman led with his shoulder pads in arguably the biggest hit of the day.

Thumbs down: The 49ers had to settle for field goals after reaching the Pittsburgh 14- and 4-yard lines as their red-zone struggles continue. They also converted just five third-down plays, and their 33 percent third-down conversion rate in the game will lower the 37.8 percent average they had entering the afternoon – which ranked last in the NFL. Three-and-outs and stalled drives on third downs are contributing significantly to San Francisco's problems on offense.

Thumbs up: It ended with a thud, but that was a three-game winning streak in road games that the 49ers just assembled dating back to last season, a significant step for a young, growing team. The first two of those wins were at Seattle to prevent the Seahawks from clinching the NFC West and at Denver in the season finale last year to keep the Broncos out of the playoffs. It was the first time the 49ers have won three consecutive road games since 1997, and that's not easy to do for anybody in today's NFL.


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