The San Francisco 49ers face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, which means we are back to chat with our Steelers blog. Jeff Hartman from Behind The Steel Curtain was kind enough to chat with us about his Steelers, and what to expect on Sunday.
The Steelers are coming off a tough loss to the New England Patriots, but they still bring plenty of weapons to the table in Week 2. We talked with Jeff about the secondary, the ground game, Ben Roethlisberger, and even got a prediction out him. Thanks again, Jeff.
Niners Nation: The big story last week seemed to be the Steelers secondary. How much was that a talent issue, and how much was Rob Gronkowski being a great pass catcher? Will we see Brandon Boykin this week?
Behind The Steel Curtain: The Steelers secondary has been the biggest question mark for the Steelers entering 2015, and the issues are both talent as well as matchups. Anyone who was honest with themselves going into Foxborough in Week 1 knew Rob Gronkowski was going to be a nightmare for a young and inexperienced secondary. The Steelers lack of experience is an issue in their secondary, and across the defense. It was evident in Week 1 when the unit failed to even get aligned correctly several times throughout the game, one of them being not lining up over Gronkowski which resulted in a touchdown.
The defense is young, but should improve as the season progresses. With 10 days between their first two games the team should have ironed out some of those kinks. As for Boykin, he has been on the injury report all week with a groin injury, and it looks as if the 49ers might be seeing Ross Cockrell, not Boykin, in the secondary if things to change dramatically between now and kickoff.
NN: DeAngelo Williams had a huge game for the Steelers last week. Did he catch the Patriots off-guard, or is this a guy who you expected big things from while Bell is suspended?
BTSC: Williams was brought in for two main purposes. 1.) To handle the load throughout Le'Veon Bell's suspension, and 2.) be the ultimate team player who will accept a secondary role when Bell returns. The latter was something LeGarrette Blount was unable to do in 2014, and it resulted in a hissy fit which had him released from the team. Blount's departure also shown the light on the horrible depth the Steelers have at RB behind Bell.
Williams fills both of those needs, and although many knew Williams still had some gas left in the tank, no one expected the performance he put on the field in Week 1 against the Patriots. If Williams can continue this type of play, not only will he be able to get the Steelers through Bell's suspension, but will help extend the longevity of Bell by being able to fill in and not requiring Bell to be an every down back as he was in 2014.
NN: Roethisberger is not the most mobile of quarterbacks. The 49ers seemed to mix and match pressure against Teddy Bridgewater last week. How do you see Roethlisberger handling a blitzing defense?
BTSC: Ben Roethlisberger was the best QB against the blitz in 2014, so if the 49ers want to blitz a lot, they might be playing right into the hands of Todd Haley and his quick-hitting offense. The Pittsburgh offensive line is one of the better units in the AFC, and Mike Munchak being their coach has made all the difference. In Week 1, the Patriots looked to exploit the Steelers OLine without Maurkice Pouncey and pressure up the middle was successful.
However, unlike the last time the Steelers played the 49ers in San Francisco, the Steelers aren't a "chuck it deep" kind of team anymore. Instead, they are a throw it 5 yards to Antonio Brown and let him make plays with his speed and agility. The key to slowing down the Steelers prolific offense isn't found in blitzing regularly, but by being able to get pressure with 4 or 5 players, and covering those intermediate routes to cause Roethlisberger into his second, third and sometimes fourth options on plays.
You are right, Roethlisberger isn't very mobile anymore, but he can still shake off pass rusher with the best of them!
NN: Monday Night Football was fairly ugly on special teams, with illegal blocks and a blocked field goal. You guys seemed to have issues with Josh Scobee. Can you give us a rundown of your special teams heading into this game?
BTSC: With Scobee you seem to get the good with the bad so far. Scobee isn't as accurate as injured Shaun Suisham, but he has a much stronger leg on kickoffs. The Steelers special teams are unbelievably mediocre, and their coverage units are prone to making mistakes which lead to big plays for the opposition. With Scobee kicking off, it is relieving the kick off units from making those head-scratching mistakes on coverage. In the punting game, the Steelers have a rookie punter named Jordan Berry from Australia. Berry has a big leg, but doesn't have a lot of experience.
In the return game, Dri Archer handles the kick off duties, but has had minimal impact on any game since his rookie season in 2014. The punt returner is the player to keep an eye on, and that is still Antonio Brown. Despite a return unit which struggles to give Brown a lane, he is dangerous anytime he has the football in his hands. Special teams can swing the tide of a game, and the Steelers special teams are well below average on most accounts.
NN: Looking for two predictions: 1) How do you see Sunday's game playing out? Doesn't need to be a specific score prediction. 2) With Bell and Bryant suspended, and Pouncey out for a while, how do you see this team handling the personnel losses over the first half of the season?
BTSC: 1.) I actually see this game being more high scoring than most might think. The Steelers defense struggles against mobile quarterbacks, and although I think they will stop the 49ers running game, Colin Kaepernick is a player who possesses a skill set which could be a nightmare for the Steelers defenders. The Steelers offense, even without Martavis Bryant and Le'Veon Bell is very prolific and if they can improve their red-zone offense can be one of the best in the league. I think the Steelers come out on top in this one, but a lot of that has to go with the 49ers on a short week and traveling across country. For a score, I'll go with Pittsburgh - 31, San Francisco - 27
2.) The losses of Bell, Bryant and Pouncey are tough to stomach, but the biggest loss of the three is by far Bell. DeAngelo Williams has done a great job so far in Bell's stead, but Bell is the most versatile running back in the league. Bell runs pass routes better than most wide receivers, and is a matchup nightmare for any defense. Getting Bell back in the fold in Week 3 when the Steelers travel to St. Louis will be a welcome sight for an offense looking to get it's superstars back. Bryant will return in Week 5, and when he does, keep an eye on the Steelers offense as they will look to show off the dynamic offense which was expected to carry the team throughout the 2015 season.