The Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the San Francisco 49ers 20-3 Monday night and dropped to 10-4 on the season. I have made it back through the game again and here are my further observations from the game not included in the regular game recap.
The first drive started well and included several quick, short passes that were easy throws for Ben Roethlisberger. The interception was him forcing the ball as neither David Johnson nor Mike Wallace had any separation. The throw he should have made was to Antonio Brown underneath on the shallow cross. Roethlisberger also showed the predictable early signs that he was hesitant to step into his throws with his injured ankle. He would fight bad mechanics all night long as a result of it.
49ers quarterback Alex Smith really let the Steelers defense off the hook by missing with his pass to Kyle Williams in the endzone. Troy Polamalu left the center of the field following the eyes of Smith and Williams was all alone in the endzone. If he just sits down in the endzone, he has an easy 6 there. The Steelers did not get any pressure on Smith on the play at all and you can\’t give any quarterback that much time. Bullet dodged completely after Polamalu blitzed off the edge on the next play to force a bad throw from Smith.
The bad ankle was really noticeable again on the Steelers second drive as Mike Wallace had his man beat for an easy home run ball and Roethlisberger hardly stepped into his throw overthrowing him by nearly 5 yards. On the interception to Heath Miller, Ben also used all arm and the pass sailed high. Rashard Mendenhall was available for the check-down to the right, and although it likely only would have gone for only 5 or 6 yards, they would have had a very makeable 3rd down at that point. Two drives, two interceptions is never a good way to start a game off.
The defense dodged another bullet after Smith missed Michael Crabtree on a stop and go route after play action as Ike Taylor took a peek into the backfield. LaMarr Woodley helped hurry the throw with pressure, but a good quarterback drops that one in the bucket. The 49ers could have and should have been up 14-0 at that point but instead only had 6 points to show for two nice drives that saw Smith use quick drops and get the ball out quickly to the edges against zone coverages.
The holding call by Trai Essex followed by the illegal formation penalty should have killed the 3rd drive but the gift illegal contact penalty on the sack of Roethlisberger negated it. Aldon Smith got his long arms in the chest of Max Starks and drove him right into the lap of Roethlisberger on that play.
Ryan Clark had a very nice pass breakup on Vernon Davis after Davis ran away from Lawrence Timmons on a crossing route after play action.
The slip draw to Mewelde Moore was a great play call to start the final drive of the half and Starks did a great job getting down field to block. After the dump off to Moore, the Steelers wasted a ton of time changing personnel and should have used their final timeout or ran another quick play with the grouping on the field. They ended up taking a timeout with them to the lockerroom and had zero points to show for the final drive of the half. The clock management there was the worst by far of the season.
The first half saw almost no pressure by the front 7 as Smith did a great job of getting the ball out. As bad as the first half was though, the Steelers were still very much still in the game. The few bright spots on defense through the first 30 minutes were Polamalu and Ryan Clark. The offensive line was a little spotty, but they were not awful outside of the holding call and a few pressures. The two Roethlisberger interceptions hurt pretty bad.
After the Steelers defense got off the field to open the second half, Andy Lee got off a booming 61 yard punt and two Steelers were flagged on the return. That play really flipped the field as the Steelers started at their own 16 after Lee punted from his own endzone. This was a huge play in the game. The Keenan Lewis interference call on the fumbled punt just a few plays later was yet another huge play that did not go the Steelers way. Lewis would have been better staying on his blocker instead of sliding off him. A very tough call.
The challenged catch by Antonio Brown was called right. Roethlisberger was off with his back shoulder throw and Brown made a great catch. Putting his hand down to break his fall is what caused him to be ruled out of bounds. Had it been ruled complete, the drive stays alive, but instead Shaun Suisham was forced to kick a 51 yard field goal. It was a bit of a curious play call however on 3rd and 2 and something a little more high percentage should have been called in hindsight.
Despite everything that had happened up until now, the Steelers were still in the game with 6:08 left in the 3rd, but the wheels started to come off completely from this point forward.
In case you didn\’t know it already, Vernon Davis on James Farrior is a mismatch. The screen that followed to Kendall Hunter was huge and they followed it up with another big play to Davis as Smith used play action and a roll out to draw the defense to the right. This allowed Davis to run away from Lawrence Timmons and the 49ers had all three of their explosive plays on the night within 5 plays. The play action touchdown pass to Davis was a thing of beauty and sold nicely as all 11 white shirts bit hard on the run fake.
Jerricho Cotchery really had a nice game in the loss and Hines Ward was hardly heard from. The wheel route to both Miller and Cotchery worked nicely. Smith really started to take over the game just when the 4th quarter started and he repeatedly beat Trai Essex with a simple TE stunt. The sack fumble of Roethlisberger was the dagger as Frank Gore scored after Timmons was flagged for leaping on the field goal attempt. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh had been lobbying for that call and got it. Essex and Starks really had really rough nights from that point forward.
At 20-3, Roethlisberger had no business being in the game with 5:31 remaining. I respect him saying he didn\’t want to come out, but I think Mike Tomlin is the coach. Moore had already been injured at that point and A.Smith and Justin Smith were able to just tee off on every drop back.
The Steelers defensive line had a rough game pass rushing wise and both Woodley and Jason Worilds were non-existent. Worilds was credited with 6 total tackles, but 3 came late in the game. He was man-handled by left tackle Joe Staley and has a lot of work to do before he is considered a right outside linebacker. Woodley had just 2 tackles on the night.
The 49ers offensive game plan was to keep Smith in safe situations and having the lead allowed them to do that all game. The 49ers let opponents make mistakes and they capitalize on them, normally on short fields. Plain and simple, they did not beat themselves, they let the Steelers beat themselves instead.
No bubble screens in this game on offense and the slant should have been more on the run after the rough start by Roethlisberger. He was certainly not 100% and his mechanics suffered because of it.