Game Day Matchups

Neal Coolong breaks down the top matchups in tonight's Steelers-49ers game.

OLBs Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley vs. OTs Anthony Davis and Joe Staley

The Steelers will fight on without Harrison, and it's actually not a bad game for the repeat Pro Bowl linebacker to miss. The Steelers obviously aren't better with Harrison out, but the 49ers' pass protection has been inadequate at best over the past three games. Worilds and Woodley can tee off on 49ers QB Alex Smith on passing downs, as their offensive line has allowed 26 hits on Smith over the past three games, and 18 sacks.

Staley was injured in San Francisco's 21-19 loss to Arizona in Week 14, suffering what appeared to be concussion-like symptoms. He was replaced by Alex Boone, who will get the start over Staley if he cannot play Monday. Reports indicate he's passed all the necessary tests up to this point.

NT Casey Hampton vs. C Jonathan Goodwin

The 49ers are a run-first team. They got away from that philosophy against Arizona, and their lack of possession may have cost them the game. While the health of RB Frank Gore may be factoring in to the decision to pass more, the NFC West champions still have the No. 2 seed and the first round bye that comes with it to play for. That brings Goodwin's ability to stop Hampton on running downs into play.

Teams have gotten Hampton off the field by simply bringing in four receivers and forcing the Steelers into their nickel package – in which Hampton does not play. The 49ers are not particularly deep at the receiver position, and much of their running attack comes out of a double-tight end set with a fullback in the backfield. Hampton may be on the field more often than usual Monday night.

LT Max Starks vs. DE Justin Smith

Starks has rebounded from a rough outing at Kansas City in Week 12, when Tamba Hali got the better of him on the prime-time stage. He's back in prime time, and will face up often with a possible Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

These two squared off from 2005-07 when Smith was with Cincinnati. Smith was not the dominant player then he is now, and much of his success this year has been the result of disguising his rush angle. The 49ers can put either three or four linemen down, and they utilize both Smith and Ray McDonald as ends and tackles. This gives them the ability to maximize any match-up advantage they may have. Look for Smith to work on both Starks and LG Trai Essex, who gets the start as Legursky slides over to center to replace Maurkice Pouncey.

Steelers Kick/Punt Coverage vs. KR Ted Ginn Jr.

The Steelers are 10th in the NFL, allowing 8.3 yards per punt, but 22nd in the league against kickoff returns, allowing 24.8 yard per. The longest return the Steelers have given up is 45 yards, but they've prevented the big return.

Ginn is one of three players in the NFL to have returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown this year (Chicago's Devin Hester and Green Bay's Randall Cobb are the others). He's top five in the league in both kick and punt return average, and in a game that isn't likely to see much offensive production, Ginn's playmaking ability could end up being the difference.

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