SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 19: Strong safety #43 Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers leaps while attempting to deflect a pass thrown by #11 Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers during their game at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
On Monday night, the San Francisco 49ers hosted the James Harrison-less Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick Park. Two 10-3 playoff-bound teams colliding in a head-to-head match-up on the big stage with post-season implications on the line. All signs before the game pointed to a competitive, hard-nosed contest between two similarly built teams -- and it did not disappoint.
The game was initially delayed by a power outage; a transformer blew at roughly 5:19 PT, postponing the 5:30 regularly scheduled kick off time a half hour. I expected lights to go out, but I thought they were going to be Ben Roethlisberger's (which would've been the case had it not been for a lot of those quick releases). Right off the bat, I thought there were too many Terrible Towels in the stands but the Faithful countered with a strong presence.
With Patrick Willis still out, Larry Grant once again started alongside NaVorro Bowman. That defense started out hot early, ending the Steelers first drive with a Carlos Rogers interception -- his 6th of the season. And the 49er D continued to be an enigma for offenses that like to move the ball on the ground. Before the game, the pre-game hype with Boomer and the guys was complimentary regarding the Niners front seven; calling it "perhaps the best in the league" and more.
I think the story on offense has to be Alex Smith's missed throws, of which I count at least three touchdown opportunities. The inability to score in the red zone or generate multiple long drives a game hampered the 49ers for most of the game. The ground attack was never really much of an attack at all this game; Frank Gore couldn't shake loose, biting off only 2, 3, 4 yards at a time. But the Steelers offense generated similar offensive results as San Francisco, showing what a stalemate the contest was between two powerhouses.
The secondary was pretty impressive against a Steeler passing attack which has shown its ability to light up a defensive backfield. Besides Rogers, Tarell Brown and Dashon Goldson had particularly good performances. Goldson had another interception and Brown continues to prove that he's earned that starting spot on the league's best defense. Brown had a late interception when the Steelers were beginning to mount their final comeback attempt.
The attitude and physicality that rookie cornerback Chris Culliver brings is also a thrill to watch; he's a potential star to watch rise in 2012. With this coaching staff, he's someone that could be on the verge of breaking through.
Larry Grant played inspired football against the Steelers ground game, but particularly shining against their pass with three breakups. Aldon Smith was a hellion when he got his reps on defense, just continuing to play at a high level so early in his career. He is always such a force when asked to rush the passer; displaying a natural ability get in the opponents backfield in a hurry. Trent Baalke is a genius.
Hats off to the offensive line for keeping Alex Smith upright against a terrific pass rush unit. It is my hunch that big brother John had some helpful hints in that department. If anybody knows a thing or two of how the Steelers like to get at you, its Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
The 49ers ability to piece some offense together late in the game with Vernon Davis and Frank Gore touchdowns resulted in the now 11-3 49ers. Those are the 49ers looking at at least the #2 seed in the NFC going into the playoffs. The performances by the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints will influence it otherwise. The 49ers have a short week with the Seahawks on Saturday.