In one of the most promising, if not the best, Monday Night Football match-ups of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) head west to take on the San Francisco 49ers (10-3).
Unlike last week’s less-than-stellar showing from the Rams and Seahawks, this game features two teams each near the top of their conference, both fighting for playoff seeding and the hope of a first-round bye.
The game will kick off a crazy holiday week for the NFL, with games on five of the next eight days. This one has the potential to be a slugfest and will definitely be worth watching Monday night.
Steelers offense vs. 49ers defense
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered an ugly looking ankle injury in his last game, 10 days ago in the Steelers’ 14-3 win over the Cleveland Browns. Roethlisberger did come back to play the second half of the game against the Browns, and it appears that the 10 days off between games may be enough for Big Ben to recuperate and get out on the field Monday night. There has not been an official word yet, but given Ben’s determination to get back out on the field last Thursday, I’d say he at least gives it a go Monday night.
The Steelers are a much better team with Roethlisberger under center, as it allows them to better air the ball out to the likes of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. There’s a 20 percent chance of rain, and the temperature is projected to be in the 60s, so good weather could mean that Big Ben’s ankle will feel loose and he’ll be ready to air the ball out.
The 49ers boast one of the league’s best defenses, but San Francisco might be without its best player in linebacker Patrick Willis. Willis has a right hamstring injury and will most likely be a game-time decision at best. He’s one of the most important players in the 49ers’ top-ranked run defense that allows just 70.5 rushing ypg.
The 49ers have not given up more than 21 points in a game since a 24-23 win over Philadelphia on October 2, but they did allow 21 to the John Skelton-led Arizona Cardinals in a 21-19 loss last week.
49ers offense vs. Steelers defense
The Steelers will be missing a star linebacker of their own, as James Harrison will be serving his one-game suspension stemming from his hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. The Steelers have the top-ranked pass defense in the league, and they have enough playmakers to give Alex Smith trouble. Smith has been sacked 18 times in the past three games, and the 49ers will need to shore up that protection to have success against Pittsburgh.
San Francisco will need to find a way to run the ball against the Steelers, which is no given; and much of that responsibility will fall on Frank Gore. He may be called upon to catch more screen passes if Dick LeBeau’s defense brings the heat. Smith will need to be able to read the blitz and find Gore in the flat as an extension of the 49ers running game to keep the defense at bay.
It sounds basic, but the less Smith turns the ball over, the better off he’ll be. The Steelers have an opportunistic defense that will be looking to capitalize on any mistake Smith makes, so he’ll need to check down if necessary to avoid having the ball end up in Troy Polamalu’s hands.
I don’t think the game will be too high-scoring, but if one team is going to break out, it’s going to be the Steelers. I think having Willis out hurts the 49ers more than losing Harrison will hurt the Steelers.
Expect Roethlisberger to play and play effectively. The 49ers lead the all-time series 10-9, and I think Pittsburgh will even that series and leave San Fran with a win.
Final Score: Pittsburgh Steelers 27 | San Francisco 49ers 16
Pittsburgh Steelers at San Francisco 49ers
- Steelers-49ers Date: Monday, December 19 at 8:30 PM on ESPN
- Steelers-49ers Announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, and Ron Jaworski
- Steelers-49ers Point Spread: 49ers -1
- Steelers-49ers Over-Under Odds: 39