Steelers' Issues Real, but Relative

The Steelers have their issues, no doubt, writes Mike Prisuta, but it's relative when compared to some of the other teams around the league -- including the 49ers.

Troy Polamalu said he'd return to practice only if and when Mike Tomlin tells him to suit up.

Charlie Batch said no one's told him if he would be the quarterback in the event Ben Roethlisberger turns up unavailable, and that a determination on Roethlisberger's status might not be made until Monday.

And Ryan Clark, referencing James Harrison's one-game suspension, said "when things don't go our way we need to shut up."

Yes, these are indeed bizarre times on the South Side.

But the upcoming trip to San Francisco and that showdown with the 49ers on Monday night remain ripe with opportunity to at least keep pace with the Baltimore Ravens and maybe even regain control of the AFC North.

The 49ers are 10-3 and have already been crowned NFC West champions.

But they, too, have issues.

Among the most glaring is quarterback Alex Smith, who has been sacked 39 times (that's four more quarterback drops than Roethlisberger has endured). If Smith can throw it short and quick he can manage a game without mistakes. If he can't, negative plays ensue, be they sacks or hurries that result in inaccurate throws or balls that get batted at the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers, thanks to their relatively newfound penchant for man-to-man defense, ought to be able to deal with Smith even without James Harrison against an offensive line that's sprung more holes of late than the Titanic. Especially since Braylon Edwards has gone MIA.

They'll have to first shut down the run. The last five teams to play the 49ers have done that well enough to hold Frank Gore to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Last Sunday, Gore was splitting carries with rookie Kendall Hunter.

So it's little wonder the 49ers haven't converted more than 50 percent of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns since Oct. 2 at Philadelphia and haven't scored a TD from inside the 20 since Nov. 20 against Arizona (2-for-6, 33 percent; SF is 0-for-7 since).

In last Sunday's rematch with the Cardinals, the 49ers were held to 233 total net yards, including just 88 in a second half that saw San Francisco manage five punts and then turn the ball over on downs over the course of its last six possessions.

The defense still hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown. But the Cardinals were still able to exploit a unit that was without Patrick Willis with throws over the linebackers and in front of the safeties, throws that on three occasions resulted in catch-and-run big plays.

And that was John Skelton on the trigger end of such exploitation.

Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown ought to be able to do to San Francisco what Larry Fitzgerald and Early Doucet did to San Francisco no matter which Pittsburgh QB ends up doing the throwing. Given the oil that San Francisco's offense is clearly leaking, the Steelers won't have to do so all that often.

The only obvious edge for the 49ers is on special teams. They can really cover. Ted Ginn remains scary fast and kicker David Akers has hit six of seven attempts from 50-plus yards.

But if the Steelers don't turn the ball over and they don't turn Ginn loose they ought to be able to dictate tempo and terms. And if they do that, they're coming back with a "W."

Although less than at their best against Cleveland, the Steelers still did enough to win and for the most part have looked like a team that knows where it wants to go and how to get there in winning four straight and eight of nine.

The 49ers, conversely, have dropped two of three and suddenly look like a team that wasn't expecting to win this season and isn't quite sure how to handle having done so.

Hope Mike Tomlin isn't too hard on Harbaugh the Younger during the postgame handshake.


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