49ers, Steelers A To Z

SCI's Jim Wexell has all facets covered in today's preview of Sunday's home opener.

SERIES MEMORABLE MOMENT

49ers 20, Steelers 3

December 19, 2011 at Candlestick Park

It was a Monday night match-up between two 10-3 teams but the Steelers limped into the game figuratively and literally. First, James Harrison was suspended for a hit on Colt McCoy in the open field earlier in the season. Second, Ben Roethlisberger had a sore left foot and a sprained right ankle and was severely limited but played anyway -- and the decision has been second-guessed ever since because Roethlisberger never seemed to recover for the post-season loss to Tim Tebow and Denver. But this MNF game at Candlestick Park, the last regular-season game played there, was stopped twice because of power outages. The second time, Harrison tweeted “If I can’t play then can’t nobody play – Lights Out!” The Steelers outgained the 49ers by 102 yards but couldn't score a touchdown against the league's best run defense and best red-zone defense.

TALE OF THE TAPE

"Last week exactly half of their plays were out of three tight ends, and then 17 plays were out of two tights, so that's like three-fourths of their offense coming out of power formations. Physically, they want to mulch you up. Their quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, they have some designed runs for him. I think he only ran three of the options last week, although he ran seven times. They ran three options, gave it twice, kept it once. He's really good on the perimeter. He's not good in the pocket, so you've got to keep him in the pocket. And you can't get nose trouble. Defensively, they like to blitz. I think at least three of their sacks, out of their five, were from safeties or inside linebackers. Of course, (Minnesota QB) Teddy Bridgewater did not play well. He had open receivers in the first half. I don't know if he was confused or he was just bad, but he really struggled." -- Steelers broadcast analyst Tunch Ilkin.

TOP QUESTION

Can the Steelers stop the 49ers' running game?

The 49ers do all the things that have bothered the Steelers over the years. They run the outside zone stretch plays with a back, Carlos Hyde, who can cut it back on a dime and do so with the power of a Fred Taylor or an Arian Foster, two backs who've killed the Steelers in different eras. They also have a quarterback in Kaepernick who throws misdirection passes off play-action bootlegs. The Steelers are coming with the new wrinkle of unleashing their defensive linemen. Instead of reading and reacting, Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon and Stephon Tuitt, as well as the linebackers, will shoot gaps in the hope of disrupting the 49ers' flow and tackle Hyde and Kaepernick for losses. It's new, and there will be kinks to iron out, but I have to believe this defense will be hungry enough to get the job done and keep the two primary rushers under 100 yards combined. But those runners will come close.

THREE QUESTIONS: With OLB Jarvis Jones

Q: Can you confirm you made a Troy Polamalu-like, diving, one-handed interception in practice today?

JJ: (Chuckles) "I don't know. It was a good play though. I hope I caught it. We'll see it on film. It was a great play, ran to the ball. Trying to get better in my coverage, man. Trying to work on the small things and be more detailed."

Q: Are things coming together?

JJ: "I feel better, man. I feel comfortable. Coach (Joey) Porter's doing a great job of coaching me and getting me into the right places and teaching me the game mentally. I'm just trying to take it all in stride, try to take advantage of my opportunities out there every day and get better."

Q: Pass-rushing is physically the most taxing job in football. Does the rotation help that?

JJ: "Man, it does. It does. Being able to rotate, keep guys fresh, throwing different guys at the tackle, it definitely works. We just gotta get home with it though."

GAME BREAKDOWN

What to look for from the Steelers on Sunday against the 49ers:

ON OFFENSE:

The 49ers will try to blitz Roethlisberger, no doubt through Cody Wallace's A gaps with linebacker NaVorro Bowman and safeties Antoine Bethea and Jaquiski Tartt. All three had sacks last week, so the Steelers should be ready with their hot reads over the middle. RB DeAngelo Williams is also a savvy blocker in these situations, but watch out for Bowman if Dri Archer makes a third-down appearance back there. Bowman is the former Penn State linebacker who made 14 tackles last Monday in his return from the knee injury he suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. If the Steelers can protect Roethlisberger, he'll look for Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton working against cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Kenneth Acker. The 5-10 Brock is the experienced CB. He made his 10th career start last week and intercepted his eighth career pass. The 6-foot Acker made his first start Monday after sitting out his rookie season with a foot injury. Acker was the sixth-round pick in 2014, chosen behind his current backups fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson (6-2, 200) and fifth-round pick Keith Reaser (6-0, 190). The 49ers' CBs have nice size but are inexperienced. This will likely be the Steelers' target zone.

ON DEFENSE:

The Steelers will no doubt be focused on stopping the 49ers' running game, and the guess is they'll try to do so with with seven in the box as they use more cover-2 in the secondary. They hope that makes it difficult for Kaepernick to beat them deep with old Steelers nemesis Torrey Smith, which could open the middle for brutish WR Anquan Boldin and TE Vernon Davis. But how much do either have left? Davis is in his 10th year and his production last season fell from 52 catches at 16.3 per catch in 2013 to 26 catches at 9.4 per. Boldin is in his 13th year but still caught 83 passes at 12.8 per catch last season. If the 49ers want to test new CB Ross Cockrell by bringing in a third WR, they have Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington, the latter is questionable with an injury. But the 49ers are more likely to use another tight end, Garrett Celek or Vance McDonald, and challenge the Steelers' run defense or catch misdirection passes. It's all about stopping the run today for the Steelers.

PREDICTION

This is a great set-up for the Steelers, who've had 10 days to prepare -- after a loss -- while the 49ers have had only six days -- after a win -- and are traveling across the country to play at what their body clocks will say is 10 a.m. Of course, nothing ever follows such a template and if the Steelers don't start fast the fans at the home opener are likely to grumble, particularly at a defense that played so poorly in New England under a new coordinator. The guess here is that the 49ers will prove to be a handful with a cutback runner and multiple tight ends who can catch and block, but the Steelers have the quarterback and will be working against average cornerbacks, so they'll score their points as well. In a high-scoring game, I expect the Steelers to will themselves to a 30-24 win as Josh Scobee bangs home all three of his field goal attempts.

BY THE NUMBERS

27,912: Total miles the 49ers will travel this season, most on the NFL's expected miles list for the 2015 season.

25,000: Total miles in a trip around the world.

28: Number of rushing yards that will put Williams over 7,000 yards in his NFL career.

1: Number of games Williams has left to start over the suspended Le'Veon Bell.

32: Starts made by 49ers free safety Eric Reid out of a possible 33 games since being chosen one spot after the Steelers chose Jones 1-17.

3: Career sacks by Jones.

7: Career interceptions by Reid.

71: Yards needed by Brown to surpass Lynn Swann for fifth place on the Steelers' all-time receiving yards list.

DOWNLOADS

* The 49ers' new offensive coordinator is Geep Chryst, brother of the former Pitt coach Paul Chryst. Geep was part of the offensive staff at Carolina that oversaw the NFL's first pair of running backs -- Williams and Jonathan Stewart -- to rush for over 1,100 years apiece in 2009. Chryst was in charge of tight ends, and that seems to be the backbone of his offense this year with the 49ers.

* Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes to dole out numbers. At his Thursday press conference, he broke his expectations down this way: "When you have 450-plus yards, you really should score 30-plus points. We obviously left points out there (against New England). We had nine possessions. We crossed the 50-yard line seven times. We only scored on four of those seven times. Even if you just kick a field goal every time you cross the 50-yard line, you are at 21 points. Sneak in a couple of touchdowns, all of a sudden you are at 30 points, which is the name of the game. We just have to be more productive. And it fell on a little bit of everybody. There was a bad call there early. It was turned into a worse call with the penalty."

The bad call? The attempted reverse pass by Brown?

"Yeah. I will take that as a bad call. When they don’t work they are bad calls," Haley said. "We had a defense that we really weren’t expecting, which kind of added to badness of the call."

* Brown has completed three of his five career passes for 35 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Of course, it's his receiving numbers that pay the bills. In the opener he caught nine passes for 133 yards and a touchdown. It was his 33rd consecutive game with five catches and 50 yards, his 19th consecutive game with five catches and 70 yards, and his 12th consecutive game with seven or more catches. All are NFL records. He's also on pace for 144 catches, which would make him the first player in NFL history with back-to-back 125-catch seasons.

"He just continues to grow," Haley said. "I told him this morning that his attention to detail (Wednesday) was terrific. I told him he’s grown so much. He’s always been really talented but now he’s much more skilled and it shows."

Brown's best catch in the opener was the third-and-5 grab he made with one arm while his other arm was wrapped around cornerback Malcolm Butler's helmet.

"There are some guys that are just going to catch it no matter what. I thought that was a great example of it," Haley said. "He had the defender between the ball and he caught it. That’s just his will and desire to make a play successful."

* The Steelers still have six starters on their roster left from their last Super Bowl season in 2010. The 49ers also have six, but their last Super Bowl season was 2012. Still in the 49ers' starting lineup are Kaepernick, Davis, Bowman, FB Bruce Miller, LT Joe Staley and LG Alex Boone.

* Mike Tomlin's comment that demoted SS Shamarko Thomas "has got to be good above the neck" was damning for a third-year player, and soon thereafter bloggers and fans began labeling Thomas a bust. But can a fourth-rounder really be a "bust"? Some are calling this year's fourth-round pick, Doran Grant, a bust as well. But let's compare the last five years of Steelers drafts with the first five years of Art Rooney Jr.'s drafts after Chuck Noll became head coach.

Chosen in the first four rounds from 2011 to 2015 who never made the team: Grant (2015-R4).

Chosen in the first four rounds from 1969 to 1973 who never made the team: Ed George (1970-R4), Lorenzo Brinkley (1972-R4), Ken Phares (1973-R2), Roger Bernhardt (1973-R3), Gail Clark (1973-R4).

* The 49ers hold an 11-9 record against the Steelers, including a 5-4 record in Pittsburgh. They are one of seven NFL teams to own a winning record in Pittsburgh. The Chicago Bears (21-7-1), New York Giants (33-14-3), Denver Broncos (7-5), Green Bay Packers (9-7), Washington Redskins (22-20-1) and Philadelphia Eagles (19-18-1) are the others.

* This is a homecoming for new 49ers coach Jim Tomsula, whose great-grandfather was a Hungarian immigrant who worked in the coal mines in Indiana, Pa. His grandfather opened a restaurant near Forbes Field. Tomsula grew up in Homestead and played football at Steel Valley High School, where he suffered a career-ending injury. Tomsula coached at Steel Valley before becoming an assistant at Woodland Hills and made the following comments to Pittsburgh media on Wednesday:

-- "Running the football is something I grew up with there. You have the Western PA belly, the old fullback belly, run it up the gut, coming straight out of Pittsburgh. To me, that’s the essence of football."

-- "Influences in football, obviously they would come from George Novak at Woodland Hills High School. You all know him. Probably the other guy that gave me a chance at 27 years old was a guy named Lionel Taylor (Steelers WR coach in the 1970s). He hired me to coach the defensive line for the London Monarchs when I was 27 years old."

-- "My mother and father are the world to me. My father worked three jobs my whole life. My mother took care of the family. Our mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was very young. Five times later she is still with us. Talk about tough and fighting. I got the whole family there, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. Those things stick with you. Don’t let your pride get in the way of a day’s work. Work your tail off. Take care of your family. That’s my family. That’s what they do. They all just go to work. They have a responsibility, like everybody in that area. That’s why we are so proud to be from Pittsburgh. It’s good people, tough-nosed people. If they have a problem with you they are going to let you know. Other than that they are going to be good people and help you out. They aren’t going to play around with a lot of BS, and you do things because they are the right things to do. That’s what I get from my family. My family is straight Pittsburgh."

PARTING SHOT

"Mr. Thomassoulo likes to play dirty. Well, there's nothing dirtier than a giant ball of oil." -- George Costanza.


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