Can Steelers Keep Their Early Christmas Gift?

The Steelers didn't even play Sunday but made the playoffs in the afternoon and moved into first place at night. The Steelers now must overcome Goodell, 49ers tonight.

The NFL clearly has a vision in which the meek shall inherit the league.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have another vision. They see James Harrison accepting the Lombardi Trophy from Pansy League czar Roger Goodell.

"No question," Hines Ward said with a laugh. "No question."

So the battle for the last laugh continues tonight in San Francisco, where the 10-3 Steelers play the 10-3 49ers in one of the best Monday night matchups of the season.

Without the suspended Harrison, and without the injured Maurkice Pouncey, and with an immobile Ben Roethlisberger – if the pre-game warm-ups are so kind – the Steelers will need their defense and running game to step forward.

The first part of the plan – defense – can succeed against a 49ers offense that ranks 29th in passing, 31st in third-down conversions and dead last, 32nd, in red-zone touchdown percentage. The 49ers haven't scored a red-zone touchdown in any of their last three games.

The problem? An offensive line that has allowed slow-releasing quarterback Alex Smith to be sacked 39 times, the most in the NFL. Smith has been sacked 18 times in his last three games, 15 in two of those games against zone-blitzers Arizona and Baltimore. The Cardinals and Ravens consistently overloaded the right side of the 49ers' offensive line as the 49ers were beaten in both games after starting the season 9-1.

The Steelers were paying attention.

"We've got some new blitzes that coach [defensive coordinator Dick] LeBeau has integrated this week, so we'll see what happens," said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. "But our main focus every week is stopping the running game. Frank obviously is a great runner, so that's going to be our main objective."

Frank Gore is fourth in the league in rushing with 1,054 yards (4.5 avg.), but he's been hobbled by ankle and knee injuries of late and hasn't crossed 100 yards in five games. His average per carry in those five games is 3.6.

In Gore's only game against the Steelers, at Heinz Field in 2007, he was held to 39 yards on 14 carries.

"They'll be more consistent with it this time," said Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. "They'll try to run more. That's what they've been doing and you can't get away from what you're doing, especially because of that defense they're playing. They try to keep it close and win it at the end."

Defense is where the 49ers butter their bread. They're fourth overall, first in points allowed, first in rushing defense (yards per game and yards per carry), and first in red-zone defense. In fact, the 49ers haven't given up a rushing touchdown this season, the first time that's occurred through 13 NFL games since the Decatur Staleys did it in 1920.

With three games remaining, the 49ers are on pace to break the 16-game NFL record of four rushing touchdowns allowed.

"They have a great set of linebackers and that defensive line really gets after the ball," said Steelers running back Isaac Redman. "Watching film you're thinking ‘How did these teams score at all?'

"Their safety, 31 [Donte Whitner], he's a great tackler in the open field and you can see he's prevented a lot of touchdowns with one-on-one tackles."

The goose egg, of course, was presented to Redman and the rest of the Steelers' rushing offense as a challenge by the coaching staff. But one of the NFL's few still-perfect runners on third-and-1 conversion attempts, Redman remains the people's choice at the goal line, particularly after Rashard Mendenhall was stopped four times from the 2-yard line or closer last week against the Cleveland Browns.

"After our performance on the goal line last week, the way to come back is to be the first team to score a rushing touchdown on the 49ers," Redman said. "It would be a great challenge for us, especially on Monday Night Football."

Would Redman like to be that guy?

"Most definitely," he said with a laugh. "That's for bragging rights right there. But the situation is still what it is. Rashard's still the goal-line back."

The Steelers will be helped by the probable absence of 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis, who's second on the team in tackles behind Penn Stater NaVorro Bowman, the other ILB in the 49ers' 3-4 defense.

Even with Willis out, the Steelers will be missing more than the 49ers. The loss of Pouncey causes another OL scramble, and the possible loss of Roethlisberger would give 37-year-old Charlie Batch only his seventh start (4-2 record) in the last 10 seasons.

Of course, there's also the loss of Harrison, the new focal point of the Steelers' Super Bowl vision who was in essence suspended for calling the commissioner mean names last March. The Steelers, though, aren't laughing at the cruel joke.

"It unifies us," said wide receiver Mike Wallace. "We like being against the world. We like that. That's the type of team we are. It's been like that since I've been here; was like that before I was here. And it's not going to change. We take it, we embrace it, we roll with it."


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