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49ers vs. Steelers preview: Ben Roethlisberger vs. blitz, tempo, testing unproven secondary

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The San Francisco 49ers face significant challenges in their Week 2 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. We break down five key aspects of the matchup, and what it will tell us about a 49ers team we are still getting to know.

It’s different watching the 2015 San Francisco 49ers. Following the Niners’ unforeseen seven-game leap back into championship contention in 2011, you had a good idea of what to expect from Jim Harbaugh’s squad week to week. With the notable exception of stashing the read option for Colin Kaepernick to unleash upon a poor Green Bay Packers’ defense in the 2012 playoffs, San Francisco generally didn’t attempt to hide their approach on either side of the ball. They dared you to stop what you knew was coming and punched you in the mouth a few times while they did it.

These aren’t those same 49ers. While still talented at many spots, the roster is no longer filled with an overwhelming number of proven, Pro Bowl-caliber players. Vacated positions have largely been filled with recent draftees who we’re still trying to figure out. With a new coaching staff leading the charge, the 49ers have changed schematically as well. For one week, at least, power runs with hulking offensive lineman paving the way have disappeared. So has San Francisco’s static, conservative approach to defense.

With only a week’s worth of tape in the books, and so many questions still unanswered, we know little about what we’ll see from the 49ers when they take the field in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Will they take the Harbaugh approach and show us much of the same stuff we saw against the Vikings? Or will they adopt a Patriots-esque mindset of tailoring their game plans to the opponent? It’s a strange feeling heading into Sundays with so much uncertainty.

One thing we do know is that the Steelers will present a different set of challenges for the 49ers, and those challenges will give us another data point in our effort to figure this team out. So rather than futile attempts at predicting how the game will unfold, we’re taking a different approach to this game preview. Here are five things to watch for against the Steelers and what it might tell us about the 2015 49ers.

Big Ben vs. Mangenius

What to watch for: Eric Mangini’s amorphous defense confused Teddy Bridgewater on Monday Night Football. Bridgewater was put on his back five times by five different 49ers defenders courtesy of Mangini’s well designed blitzes. And when the blitz didn’t come, Bridgewater appeared so flummoxed with what San Francisco was doing defensively that he often missed receivers open downfield while focusing on the rush or was wildly inaccurate when he did let the ball loose.

In case it’s not obvious, Ben Roethlisberger is not Teddy Bridgewater. Roethlisberger’s calling card is his unflappability from the pocket in the face of pressure. Every quarterback on the planet is worse under pressure, but the difference between Roethlisberger’s performance with and without pressure is consistently one of the lowest in football. That includes a ridiculous performance in 2014, in which Roethlisberger recorded the second-best DVOA with pressure that Football Outsiders has recorded since 2010.

Year DVOA without pressure DVOA with pressure Difference Rank
2014 58.4% -0.9% -59.3% 2
2013 25.3% -71.5% -96.8% 15
2012 42.3% -39.4% -81.7% 2
2011 51.1% -36.6% -87.7% 4

What it will tell us: It’s one thing to confuse the second-year Bridgewater, it’s another to confuse a savvy vet who excels against the blitz like Roethlisberger. Mangini’s schemes have surely evolved since he was last running a defense, but Roethlisberger and the Steelers have seen Mangini’s defenses with the Patriots and Browns, not to mention experience dealing with Baltimore and New England’s (post-Mangini) multifarious defenses over the years.

New England had some success getting to Roethlisberger in Week 1 with some similar looks to what the 49ers showed against the Vikings, picking up a pair of sacks in the first half by attacking backup center Cody Wallace. Will Mangini be able to do the same? With the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, and Matt Ryan on the schedule before the bye week, it will be important to find out whether Mangini’s stuff will be successful when facing an experienced, quality quarterback.

Niners’ Untested Secondary

What to watch for: With Bridgewater rattled for most of the contest, and San Francisco’s work in the box doing most of the heavy lifting, we didn’t really get a great look at how the 49ers will perform on the backend. Minnesota left a number of plays on the field in the passing game, with Bridgewater either failing to find open receivers or misfiring when he did. On the first drive alone, following Phil Dawson’s blocked field goal attempt, Bridgewater failed to take advantage of mistakes from the 49ers’ secondary.

He under-threw wideout Charles Johnson on a wheel route up the left sideline on second down for what would’ve been a sure touchdown with an accurate ball, giving Tramaine Brock an opportunity to recover and break up the pass. On third down, Jaquiski Tartt was late to his man coverage assignment on Kyle Rudolph, leaving the tight end wide open underneath with space to run after the catch and pick-up the first down. Instead, Bridgewater forced a pass further downfield that sailed over the head of its intended target.

Plays like those popped up throughout the game, and they’re plays Roethlisberger is less likely to miss. With one of the league’s best wideouts in Antonio Brown, and a reliable target in tight end Heath Miller, Roethlisberger is far more comfortable making contested throws and giving his guys an opportunity to make a play.

What it will tell us: How will this unproven cornerback crop react when actually challenged? Roethlisberger is more likely to find the weak spots in San Francisco’s coverage when they decide to blitz, and he’ll sit in the pocket all day waiting for the elusive Brown to break open when the 49ers rush three. Even if Brock and Kenneth Acker and Dontae Johnson are in good position, as previously mentioned, Roethlisberger has no problems making contested throws (see: completion to Brown in triple coverage on Pittsburgh’s final drive against New England). San Francisco’s defensive backs will need not only to prove they can stick with the likes of Brown in coverage, but that they can make plays on the ball when they do.

Tempo

What to watch for: San Francisco’s offensive tempo against Minnesota might not have been exactly where Jim Tomsula wants it, but it was a stark difference to the pace we’ve seen from this team in previous seasons. The 49ers situation-neutral pace was the ninth-fastest in the league during Week 1, according to Football Outsiders. San Francisco never finished above 18th in the same metric under Jim Harbaugh, and their pace in all situations was in the bottom three in every season.

Few teams have used tempo as effectively as the Patriots in recent seasons, and their pace gave the Steelers a lot of problems in Week 1. Those problems led to difficulties getting aligned properly and blown coverages on the backend, most notably with the Steelers repeatedly leaving Rob Gronkowski wide open. If there were ever a time for the 49ers to bump the pace up to warp speed, this is the week.

What it will tell us: What will tempo be for this team? Is it just about avoiding delay of game penalties and not burning timeouts? Or will tempo become a weapon the 49ers use to exploit mistakes for easy yards and keep defenses on their heels?

Edge Defenders

What to watch for: San Francisco’s cornerbacks won’t be the only ones challenged on defense on Sunday. Two things in particular should test the 49ers’ linebackers and safeties in a way they weren’t against the Vikings.

Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner turned out to be the best defense against Adrian Peterson in Week 1. Peterson touched the ball only four times in the first half, and not once in the fourth quarter as the Vikings were forced into catch-up mode. Removing a bootleg keeper and a couple of scrambles from Bridgewater, the Vikings only rushed the ball 14 times.

Even though they spent much of the game playing from behind, the Steelers were more committed to the ground game in their season opener on the back of a revitalized DeAngelo Williams. Williams ran for 127 yards on 21 carries, breaking a ton of tackles on his way to the third-best running back performance of the week, per Football Outsiders’ DYAR.

Much like Carlos Hyde, much of Williams’s success came on zone runs, particularly when he bounced plays outside. New England’s outside linebackers did a terrible job setting the edge and forcing Williams back inside, a mistake Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch will not want to repeat. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams had 29 yards on four carries outside the left tackle and 58 yards on seven carries off the right side. Brooks and Lynch will play vital roles in San Francisco’s run defense on Sunday, as will the 49ers’ safeties, who will need to be ready to fill the alley and make tackles should Williams make his way outside.

Another way you can expect Pittsburgh to attack these defenders will be through the use of packaged plays, or run/pass options (RPOs). Roethlisberger and the Steelers have been among the handful or so NFL teams to feature these plays on a consistent basis, and they utilize them as a way to pick up easy yardage on quick-hitting throws to Brown and Miller. RPOs aim to put alley defenders, typically linebackers and safeties, in conflict. If the defender drops back in coverage, the quarterback will hand the ball off. Come up to defend the run, and the quarterback will fire a quick pass over your head.

Minnesota didn’t do much of this from what I saw, but the one time I noticed it, Bridgewater completed a pass to a wide open Kyle Rudolph for 19 yards.

What it will tell us: How will San Francisco’s run defense hold up against an offense more committed to the run? Does Mangini have answers for some of the problems created by more modern offenses? With teams like Green Bay and Seattle on the schedule, both of whom feature quality rushing attacks and utilize RPOs as a regular part of their offense, these answers will be important.

Colin Kaepernick

What to watch for: I discussed Colin Kaepernick’s performance against the Vikings and where that leaves us going forward at length on Thursday, so I won’t rehash that here. There was a lot to like from Kaepernick in Week 1, but there are still plenty of things to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

What it will tell us: Make no mistake, this Steelers’ defense is moribund and shouldn’t present a huge test for Kaepernick and the passing game. But there’s almost no way the 49ers will be able to hold a high-powered Steelers’ offense to three points. The question will be if Kaepernick & Co. can keep up if the game turns into a shootout, especially if Pittsburgh puts points on the board early and jumps out to a lead, which will put Kaepernick in more clear passing situations than he faced in Week 1.

PREDICTION: STEELERS (-6) over 49ers