49ers Defense vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Offense

Alright, enough woe is me about the 49ers offense.  I'm obviously worried about what they will or will NOT do this Sunday, but time to shift gears and look at the matchups our defense will face.  The Steelers have looked rather phenomenal on offense against two pretty wretched defenses.  According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers offense has climbed to 4th overall/4th passing/6th rushing against Bills and Browns defenses ranked 28th and 29th overall, respectively.  I won't argue that the Steelers have performed well, but let's see what they do against a slightly better 49ers defense that ranks 13th overall/9th rushing/16th passing, before handing them any Lombardi trophy.  It is of course worth noting that two weeks is a very small sample size, but I think we can all agree the 49ers defense is better than both the Browns and Bills defenses.

Yes, the 49ers defense gave up 368 passing yards to Marc Bulger, but considering the Rams only managed a TD and 3 FGs, I'd call the day a success for the most part.  It sounds weird to say the secondary is one of our biggest strengths after that kind of QB production, but I really think that was an aberration.  I really don't expect to see the same 7-yard cushions employed by the corners.  Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington are a solid trio of receivers, but they just don't scare me like Holt, Bruce and Drew Bennett.  Walt Harris struggled most of the day against Isaac Bruce, but he made a pair of key deflections late including a key 3rd down stop.  While I'm not 100% sold on him as a Pro Bowl-caliber corner, I also am not going to jump on him for one mostly bad day.

Willie Parker and the run game
While individual matchups between DBs and WRs makes sense, there's no point in saying "Patrick Willis vs. Willie Parker" for two reasons:

  1. First, Patrick Willis does not go hunting, he goes killing.
  2. And more seriously, it takes a team effort to stop the run and not just the awesomeness of Patrick Willis, as much as we'd like to believe otherwise.
After years of the Bus, Willie Parker brings speed and shiftiness, and manages to avoid dancing too much behind the line.  The 49ers were able to contain Steven Jackson last week with excellent tackling and containment when Jackson tried to kick it out past the tackle box.  The defensive line, particularly BY and Sopoaga were able to contain inside runs and often force Jackson into unmanageable situations outside.  Obviously, Patrick Willis was a one-man wrecking crew, but Michael Lewis has shown his abilities in the run game.  Past fantasy performances have shown me Willie Parker can be wildly inconsistent and coming off a pair of great games, maybe we get the shutdown game.  I'd certainly consider that a reasonable request.

Nate Clements/Walt Harris vs. Hines Ward/Santonio Holmes
Obviously the Steelers have other receiving threats, including Heath Miller and Nate Washington, but let's look at their big guns versus our big guns.  Hines Ward who seems to have some off-the-field "business issues" is a rock as their #1 receiver and Santonio Holmes is looking to bust out after a solid but not spectacular rookie season.  Nate Clements has looked phenomenal so far, with the only score against him coming on a phenomenal Bulger-to-Holt connection.  He may not be the #1 cornerback in the league, but he's playing as well as could be expected, considering the burden a big contract can place on players.  Hopefully Walt Harris bounces back with a solid performance covering Holmes.  Harris seems to perform better when he's playing up close in press coverage and knocking guys around on the line.

Additionally, Shawntae Spencer seems to be settling into the 3rd CB role as he tries to show some consistency.  If the 49ers can contain Ward and Holmes, I'm not too worried about Nate Washington and company.  The secondary is the 49ers strength on defense and as I said before (and tell myself before bed) I believe Bulger's performance last week was not indicative of the secondary, but rather the scheme's and positioning being used by the coaching staff.

Repeat of Bulger's beatdown?
Marc Bulger may have thrown for 368 yards, but I'm guessing he's still sitting in a whirlpool trying to dull the pain.  The 49ers sacked Bulger 6 times and hit him a dozen-plus times.  I'd certainly prefer sacks, but I'll settle for hits as the QB is releasing the ball.  Big Ben is certainly a big boy who can take hits, but all quarterbacks get skittish after enough hits.  The Steelers have yielded only two sacks and are gaining 5+ yards per rush, so clearly the offensive line is doing something right.  The 49ers effectively mixed in blitzes last weekend to disrupt Bulger and hopefully we'll see the same thing this week.  As previously stated MANY TIMES, Patrick Willis can be one hell of a disruptive force and he actually seems to be improving as a pass defender.  Combine that with Banta-Cain and Lawson off the edges and I think we can force Roethlisberger into making some mistakes.

Conclusions
Even thought I'm near the bottom of the predictions, I've been thinking all week about how I think this game will end.  I keep saying it will either be a narrow 49ers win or a Steelers blowout.  If the 49ers defense can lock down the Steelers, which is a reasonable goal, the 49ers can spring the upset.  The offense will certainly need to perform, but who's to say we can't win with a touchdown and 2 or 3 field goals?  A 13-10 squeaker counts just as much as a 42-0 blowout.  The Steelers may have blown out the Bills and Browns (once again, THE BILLS AND BROWNS), while the 49ers had lucky, ugly victories over Arizona and St. Louis.  But you know what?  Heading into this weekend, they're both 2-0 and that's all that counts.  Both teams are relatively healthy, which means no excuses come Monday morning...and hopefully there will be no need for excuses Sunday afternoon.

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