MNF might turn into a good one

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> Monday Night Football usually means big-game football in prime time. <br><br> <i> Usually.</i> <br><br> On this Monday night, the 3-6 Steelers travel to meet the 4-5 San Francisco 49ers in a game the network hopes will sell because of tradition, since the team of the 1970s is taking on the team of the 1980s.

"I really don't care what the networks think," said Steelers Coach Bill Cowher, whose storyline would be a mixed bag.

"San Francisco's a storied franchise," he said. "And us, we're in the process of trying to do something that no one else in the league has done since they've gone to a 16-game schedule. It's not going to be easy. This is the next step along the way. It just happens to be on a Monday night."

The Steelers are attempting to become the first team in the modern era to make the playoffs after a 2-6 start. They headed in the right direction last week with a 28-15 win over the Arizona Cardinals to pull within two games of AFC North leader Baltimore.

The 49ers also hope they're headed in the right direction. After losing at Arizona, the 49ers came back home and waxed their rivals, the St. Louis Rams, 30-10, and then sat out last week with a bye. Are the Steelers going to continue the 49ers' up-and-down pattern?

"They are dangerous and they know they have a chance," 49ers Coach Dennis Erickson said of the Steelers. "They are so physical on defense and they run around and make plays. Those linebackers are something special."

The Steelers have turned up the pass rush the last two weeks. More blitzing has resulted in more sacks, 10 more sacks, with Jason Gildon leading the team this season with five.

The 49ers are also taking pride in their linebackers and their blitzing style. Fourteen different 49ers have at least half a sack and they're currently tied for second in the NFL with 32 sacks, putting them on pace for 48. Last season, the 49ers were 24th in the NFL with 32 sacks.

For comparison's sake, 11 different Steelers have sacks and the Steelers have 23 on the season, which puts them on pace for 41, below last year's 50. The Steelers' linebackers have 57 percent of their sacks.

The 49ers, who play a 4-3 alignment, are getting 39 percent of their sacks from their linebackers. It's their highest percentage since 1993. The leader is strong-side backer Julian Peterson with four, followed by injured Jamie Winborn with three and middle backer Derek Smith with 2.5. While the improved pass rush helped the 49ers beat the Rams and the Tampa Bay Bucs in their last two home games, so has their running attack. In those two games, the 49ers averaged 5 yards per carry.

The two-pronged attack is paced by Garrison Hearst (130-595, 4.6) and Pitt's Kevan Barlow (98-427, 4.4). Fullback Fred Beasley is considered one of the best lead blockers in the game. The Steelers counter with a run defense that allows 3.4 yards per carry, third in the NFL behind Miami and Jacksonville.

San Francisco's run defense allows 3.9 per carry and has been particularly soft the last five weeks at 4.6 per carry. But the Steelers' sluggish running game is of little threat to anybody.

If the Steelers spin their wheels again, they'll have to protect quarterback Tommy Maddox and get something out of split end Plaxico Burress, who hasn't scored a touchdown or had a 100-yard game since the second game of the season at Kansas City.

Since then, Burress has criticized his coaches, as well as game officials, through the media and dealt with a shoulder injury that he predicted would be "90 percent" healthy by game time. The 49ers will counter offensively with Owens (48-636-4 TDs) and Tai Streets (32-405-5) at wide receiver, along with rookie Brandon Lloyd (3-61-1), who caught a 27-yard touchdown pass against the Rams.

Owens (6-foot-3, 226), Streets (6-3, 207) and Lloyd (6-0, 184) can expect plenty of press coverage from Steelers cornerbacks Chad Scott (6-1, 205), Deshea Townsend (5-9, 191) and rookie Ike Taylor (6-0, 195) because the Steelers don't believe 49ers backup Tim Rattay has the arm strength to hurt them deep.

Rattay will make his second career start Monday in place of Jeff Garcia, who has an array of injuries, including a high ankle sprain.

Rattay was Troy Edwards' quarterback at Louisiana Tech. He's a 6-foot, 200-pounder from the Cleveland suburb of Elyria, Ohio. In his first start against the Rams, Rattay showed outstanding timing and accuracy in the short-to-intermediate range. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating was 110.7.

If Rattay comes close to that Monday, the 49ers will have the necessary balance to win and reach .500 in what's certainly been a disappointing season for both teams thus far. "I don't want to pass judgment on them," Cowher said when asked his opinion of the 49ers, "because I'd hate to know what they're saying about us."

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