Two of the most successful teams of this 2011 NFL season will go head-to-head under the Monday night lights when the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers pay a visit to Candlestick Park to take on the playoff-bound San Francisco 49ers, though some of the luster of this otherwise marquee matchup may be removed due to the potential absence of a pair of star players.
The Steelers will enter this high-profile showdown with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a question mark due to an ankle sprain he suffered in the team's most recent win, while All-Pro outside linebacker James Harrison is guaranteed to sit out the contest after being handed a one-game suspension by the league office for an illegal hit on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy during Pittsburgh's 14-3 triumph over the Browns on Dec. 8.
Roethlisberger was sidelined for part of the second quarter after hurting his ankle against the Browns, though the notoriously-resilient signal-caller did return after halftime and sealed the victory with a 79-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown with under three minutes to go. The two-time Super Bowl winner has remained hobbled with the injury during this week's practice sessions, however, and his status will likely be touch-and-go up until game time.
"I'm going to do everything I can to be out there; it's probably more on [the coaches]," said Roethlisberger, who finished 16-of-21 for 280 yards with two touchdown strikes and one interception in the gritty performance. "If I'm not out there it's probably because they didn't feel comfortable with me being out there to protect myself or whatever it is. They know better than I do."
Roethlisberger has missed just one game because of injury over the past four seasons and has a well-established reputation of playing through pain. If he's held out for Monday's clash, 14-year veteran Charlie Batch will direct the offense.
Harrison, on the other hand, has no chance of suiting up after the NFL upheld its ban on the hard-hitting defender on Friday for his helmet-to-helmet shot on McCoy. The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year was fined four times by the league last season for violations of safety rules.
Pittsburgh's defense still figures to be in good hands even without Harrison. The Steelers enter this week's play having yielded the second-fewest points (15.2 ppg) and total yards (276.1 ypg) in 2011, despite the four-time Pro Bowler having been inactive for four games with a fractured orbital bone earlier in the year and fellow pass-rushing terror LaMarr Woodley out the same amount of time with a hamstring pull.
The Steelers prevailed for the fourth straight game and eighth time in nine outings with their Week 14 decision over Cleveland, and now hold a half-game edge on rival Baltimore for first place in the AFC North standings after the Ravens' loss at San Diego on Sunday. Pittsburgh also clinched a playoff berth for the fourth time in five years due to Sunday's happenings and would be in the driver's seat for the conference's No. 1 overall seed if able to down the 49ers.
San Francisco has also punched a ticket to its conference tournament, the franchise's first postseason entry since 2002, by claiming the NFC West two weeks ago. The Niners still have plenty of play for, however, with an opening- round bye still up for grabs over the final three weeks.
The 49ers lost some ground in their battle with New Orleans for the likely No. 2 overall seed, however, after dropping a 21-19 result at surging Arizona last Sunday. The Saints are presently a half-game ahead of San Francisco for that spot after topping Minnesota on Sunday.
The Cardinals rallied from a 12-point third-quarter deficit with a pair of touchdown passes from second-string quarterback John Skelton in last weekend's ousting of the 49ers. The setback was the second in three weeks for San Francisco following a scorching 9-1 start under rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, with the Niners also bested by Baltimore by a 16-6 count on Thanksgiving night.
You're the hunted now, you're not the hunter as much," said Harbaugh. "You've got a target on your back. People want to beat you. That's raised. We've got three games left and we control our destiny in terms of making the playoffs, positioning, momentum, the best it can possibly be for us."
The 49ers top the league in scoring defense (14.0 ypg), and last week's point total by the Cardinals was the most the team has allowed since a 24-23 win at Philadelphia in Week 4.
San Francisco holds a slim 10-9 edge in its all-time series with Pittsburgh, with the Steelers closing the gap with a 37-16 home rout when these teams last met in 2007. The 49ers had taken four of the previous five bouts in the set prior to that loss, including a 30-14 verdict at Candlestick Park in 2003. The Steelers last won in San Francisco on Nov. 7, 1999, a 27-6 victory.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin moved to 1-0 against the 49ers for his career with that 2007 outcome, while Harbaugh will be facing both the Steelers and Tomlin for the first time in his present position.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Even if Roethlisberger (3526 passing yards, 21 TD, 11 INT) does manage to play, the Steelers' offensive game plan will probably be altered somewhat because of his reduced mobility. Normally a team that likes to stretch the field with its pairing of fleet-footed wide receivers Mike Wallace (62 receptions, 1034 yards, 8 TD) and Brown (55 receptions, 925 yards, 2 TD), both of whom are averaging over 16 yards a catch this season, Pittsburgh may decide to lean more on running backs Rashard Mendenhall (710 rushing yards, 8 TD, 13 receptions) and Isaac Redman (353 rushing yards, 1 TD, 14 receptions) in this one. It's not the desired strategy, however, as lead back Mendenhall has had a disappointing year after posting career bests of 1,273 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010, having recorded just one 100-yard effort while working behind a shuffled front line that's dealt with injuries throughout the season. One of those occurred in the Cleveland game, with standout center Maurkice Pouncey incurring an ankle sprain of his own that his status up in the air as well for Monday. The 37- year-old Batch has attempted just 53 passes over the past three years, but did make a pair of starts in place of a suspended Roethlisberger last season and threw for three touchdowns in a win at Tampa Bay in one of those assignments.
Another reason why the Steelers may not want to go run-heavy is the strength of San Francisco's sturdy defense in that department. The 49ers have limited the opposition to a league-lows of 70.5 rushing yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry and have yet to give up a touchdown on the ground this season, while the team's string of 35 consecutive contests without permitting an individual 100- yard rusher is the third-longest in the NFL since 2000. The unit may not have its best stopper on Monday, though, with All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis (93 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) highly questionable with a hamstring strain that kept him out of last week's loss as well. The Niners were still able to hold Arizona to a mere 55 rushing yards on 23 totes with him out, with emerging star linebacker NaVorro Bowman (113 tackles) and rugged lineman Justin Smith (47 tackles, 6.5 sacks) leading the charge. Skelton came up with 282 passing yards and three touchdowns off the bench, however, with two of those scoring deliveries from 46 yards out or more. The secondary does contain two members with five interceptions each this year in cornerback Carlos Rogers (35 tackles, 15 PD) and free safety Dashon Goldson (54 tackles), while impressive rookie Aldon Smith (27 tackles, 10.5 sacks) and Ahmad Brooks (39 tackles, 6 sacks) offer two quality edge rushers from the outside linebacker positions.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco generally employs a conservative, ball-control philosophy that's been highly effective when workhorse running back Frank Gore (1054 rushing yards, 6 TD, 16 receptions) is at his best. That was certainly the case when the hard-nosed veteran ripped off five consecutive 100-yard games during a midseason tear, but he's been less of a factor down the stretch while fighting through some nagging injuries. The 49ers still sit seventh in the NFL in rushing offense (126.9 ypg) and have a league-low 10 giveaways on the year, with cerebral quarterback Alex Smith (2565 passing yards, 15 TD, 5 INT) having a fine season in what's been essentially a caretaker's role. There are some issues to sort out for the playoffs, though. San Francisco is at the bottom of the standings in red-zone execution, having produced touchdowns on an unwanted 35.6 percent of such drives, and Smith has been sacked 18 times over the past three weeks after being taken to the turf on five occasions by the Cardinals. The former No. 1 overall pick may be without his blind-side protector on Monday as well, with left tackle Joe Staley questionable after sustaining a concussion against Arizona. San Francisco doesn't throw the ball a whole lot, but young wide receiver Michael Crabtree (55 receptions, 2 TD) and athletic tight end Vernon Davis (49 receptions, 5 TD) have both been reliable targets for Smith.
Pittsburgh's tradition of excellent defense has continued during this 2011 season, and esteemed coordinator Dick LeBeau's group seems to have raised its play to an even higher level recently. The Steelers have allowed a scant 19 total points and only one touchdown over their last three wins and forced eight turnovers over that span, rectifying what had been a sore spot for the club early on this year. A secondary headlined by 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu (76 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), fellow safety Ryan Clark (86 tackles, 1 INT) and shutdown cornerback Ike Taylor (37 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD) has been very stout, as Pittsburgh has surrendered the fewest passing yards (179.1 ypg) in the league despite both Woodley (37 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT) and Harrison missing extensive time. Woodley is due back this week from his hamstring injury and was on a roll prior to getting hurt in late October, racking up 7 1/2 sacks in just four games before being shelved, while second- year outside linebacker Jason Worilds (26 tackles, 3 sacks) is coming off a two-sack outburst against the Browns in his place. The Steelers have held their own against the run as well, with Polamalu, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (70 tackles, 1 INT) and unheralded end Brett Keisel (41 tackles, 3 sacks) spearheading a corps that's kept eight of 13 opponents under 100 rushing yards.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Without question, what will transpire at the quarterback position for Pittsburgh will have a big impact on the outcome of this game. Though Batch is serviceable and experienced, it would be a stretch to believe he'll be able to slice through a top-tier defense like San Francisco's without a hitch, and it's a must that the Steelers mount some semblance of a passing threat because the 49ers are so good against the run. Even at far less than 100 percent, Roethlisberger gives his team its best chance of winning, though Pittsburgh's explosiveness on offense may be reduced if his arm strength is affected by the injury.
The 49ers will likely encounter some difficulty running the ball on Monday, especially with Gore not having been in top form lately, so it's absolutely critical that the team protects Smith sufficiently. San Francisco's quarterback has been sacked five or more times in four games this season, and the Niners are 1-3 in those tilts. If Woodley does indeed make it back, Pittsburgh will have a pass rush to be reckoned with regardless of Harrison's absence.
Pittsburgh is going to have to rely on its defense whether or not Roethlisberger suits up, and how the AFC powerhouses perform on that side of the ball is often an indicator of their success. The Steelers are 9-0 when giving up 306 total yards or less this season, and the 49ers average only a shade above that number on offense for the year.
Roethlisberger is rarely at a loss for drama, whether it's on or off the field, and his history says there's a pretty good chance he's in the huddle with his teammates come Monday. And the Steelers will need their clutch quarterback in this game, with the 49ers likely to shut down any attempts Pittsburgh makes at running the ball. San Francisco's been able to win double-digit games largely by establishing an efficient ground attack and playing superior defense than its foe, but both of those chores will be tough to accomplish against the Steelers. Experience counts as well, and Pittsburgh's familiarity with participating in high-stakes affairs combined with the 49ers' newness to the scene puts another check mark in the column of the reigning AFC champs, who seem to possess the requisite skills that their opponent could have plenty of trouble dealing with.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, 49ers 16