I Left My Division Title in San Francisco: A Week 15 Analysis

That went about as poorly as could have been expected.

The Steelers looked beat up and out of sorts in their 20-3 loss against the 49ers in San Francisco, and the power outages that plagued the stadium provided a nice parallel for the offense’s loss of electricity during the Monday night showdown.

I had some pretty high hopes for the game, especially given the fact that with a win the team could’ve put the team in the driver’s seat for the AFC North crown and a first round bye.

However, teams like the Raiders, Titans and Jets did Pittsburgh some favors and ensured that the Steelers will be in the postseason no matter the outcome of this game, but a big road win against a tough NFC opponent would’ve been a nice statement to the rest of the league.

But perhaps road win was a little too much to ask for given the circumstances. There are plenty of excuses to be made for the loss; Pouncey’s absence, Harrison’s ludicrous suspension, and Ben’s gimpy ankle form a potent list.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that the Steelers were outplayed by the 49ers, and they were able to exploit some of the team’s weaknesses that have been inherent this season, regardless of their absences or injuries.

Although the offensive line is pretty beat up, they still did a decent job of protecting Ben. It wasn’t until the end of the game that they started to break down and allow Aldon Smith to wreak havoc.

Roethlisberger had plenty of time to throw, but still just made some plain old bad decisions. The announcers were quick to blame the ankle for influencing the quality of his throws, but the more apparent fact is that the coverage was good and he made some bad decisions. Maybe you can attribute that to a lack of practice time, but he had more time in the pocket than usual, especially on the second interception he threw, and he still threw some frustrating balls. This tends to happen with Ben when he feels too much of the pressure on him to perform, and it was evident that he wasn’t comfortable out there.

I was a little frustrated by the lack of emphasis on the run game. I appreciate that it’s hard to run too much when you get down early, but Mendenhall was averaging 4.3 yards a carry, and against the best run defense in the league, that’s hardly bad at all. Maybe a little more reliance on the run would’ve helped take the pressure off Ben, but the number of runs out of the shotgun indicated to me that he wasn’t comfortable with handoffs because of the injury, so maybe they were handcuffed in that respect.

As I mentioned earlier, the coverage was excellent all game long by the Niners. I had really thought the speed advantage that Wallace and Brown provide on the outside would be a deciding factor in the Steelers’ favor, but they were neutralized pretty effectively. Some of that was due to Ben’s struggles, and guys like Cotchery and Miller looked really good at times, but the fact remains that these guys didn’t step up when they needed to. Wallace has been struggling recently due to increased attention on stopping him, and he needed to make something special happen and was never quite able to.

Finally, the defense played decently, but was obviously missing Harrison. They weren’t able to record a single sack on Alex Smith, and only hit him once, against a somewhat suspect San Francisco offensive line. Woodley doesn’t look comfortable quite yet, and the team suffered for it. Nevertheless, they were able to force some bad throws by Smith, but the secondary was only able to hold up for so long before ultimately wearing down as the game progressed.

Troy’s role continues to disturb me. Perhaps this was inevitable, but he’s just not playing the same role he used to. He can still make some incredible open field tackles, and did on a number of occasions to save some big plays. But he seems as if he’s spending the bulk of his time playing deep in the backfield, rather than at the line, where he can create the most havoc. Maybe this is a function of the team treating him more cautiously due to his injury history, or the need for his presence in the lackluster secondary, but it’s hamstrung the defense this year, and is probably at the root of their problems creating turnovers. Future games will reveal whether this is a trend or merely a hiccup.

The Steelers had an opportunity here and they missed it. Frustrating, but hardly the end of the world. San Francisco is a tough place to play, and a long flight, even when the lights stay on.

Now Tomlin has to just focus the team on getting healthy, winning out, and praying for another Ravens’ loss.

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