Steelers Report Card for Loss to 49ers – Teeth Kicked in Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose students aced the practice test only kicked in the teeth on the real exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 opening day to the 49ers.

Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs 49ers

Javon Hargrave celebrates with an air kick after sacking Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

On the face of it 31-46-232 for 1 TD and 2 interceptions might seem respectable. But it was not. Kenny Pickett was off every time it counted. He didn’t shy away from the center of the field but that’s where he threw his worst interception (OK he had a far uglier almost interception.) Pickett can still make the 2nd year leap – at this point he can only go up. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Take away Najee Harris’ 24 yard scamper at the end of the 2nd half and he and Jaylen Warren totaled 13 yards rushing. The duo added 14 more through the air. Unacceptable by any measure. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught the only touchdown but missed a key block on a shove jet sweep on the second play of the game. Connor Heyward caught 2 passes. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: F

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson II had a respectable day and Calvin Austin caught 6 passes for a total of 37 yards – this is the kid who is supposed to spread the defense? Diontae Johnson contributed to Pickett’s first pick, and he and Pickett failed to connect on what should have been an easy touchdown pass. George Pickens had 5 catches for 36 yards. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Steelers running backs averaged 1.6 yards per carry if you control for Harris’ long run. 49er defenders recorded 8 tackles for losses. Kenny Pickett was sacked 5 times and hit a total of 9 times. It’s as if the second half of 2022 never occurred. Grade: F

Defensive Line
San Francisco 49ers average 5.5 yards rushing. And that’s including two kneel downs. That isn’t entirely on the defensive line’s shoulders, but it starts there. Grade: F

T.J. Watt was a man on fire. The rest of the unit got burned. This was the first time the inside linebacking group played together in a game that counted and it looked like it. Both Elandon Roberts and Alex Highsmith authored some good places, but as a whole the unit was below the line. Grade: D

Brandon Aiyuk had his third best outing in terms of catches and his best one measured by yards. Patrick Peterson defended a few passes nicely, but he was on coverage for some of those plays against Aiyuk. Levi Wallace took a poor angle and missed a tackle on Christian McCaffrey’s 65 yard run. Minkah Fitzpatrick took a poor angle on a key blitz. Brock Prudy very well may prove that he’s the next Tom Brady on his own merits. But even if he doesn’t, the Steelers certainly made him look like Brady. Grade: F

Special Teams
After an awful opening three and out, Pressley Harvin shanked a 34 yard punt, setting up the 49er’s first score. Later on, long snapper Christian Kuntz got called for a face mask, tacking on a 15 yard penalty and setting up another score. Ex Steeler Ray-Ray McCloud III set the 49ers up other scores with solid punt returns. Chris Boswell made his only PAT. Grade: F

The Steelers knew they had to limit the 49ers yards after catch. They knew they couldn’t let Christian McCaffrey reach the second level. On offense the Steelers understood that the 49ers were the tough to run on and would need to win the battle in the trenches.

  • We know that because Mike Tomlin told us.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs 49ers

Anthony McFarland was a bright spot for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser,

We have every reason to take him at his word that he, Matt Canada and Teryl Austin did their damndest to prepare their units for the 49ers. Whatever they did, it didn’t work. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
How to you find a hero after an awful game like that one?

Well, one easy way is to avoid mentioning a highlighting his key contribution to his unit and mention him here. Against the 49ers Anthony McFarland returned kicks for 25, 32 and 34 yards and for that McFarland wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 opening day win over the 49ers.


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Reality Bites: 49ers Kick Steelers in the Teeth, 30-7 to Open the 2023 Season

Week 1 in the NFL is all about acquainting yourself with reality. And the reality Pittsburgh faces today is that the San Francisco 49ers came to Acrisure Stadium for the 2023 season opener and embarrassed the Steelers to the tune of 30-7.

  • Sometimes reality bites.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin minced no words declaring, “We got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways.” He’s right. The question is why and should we be worried?


Kenny Pickett, Drake Jackson, Steelers vs 49ers

Drake Jackson sacks Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

How Quickly Off Season Accolades Feel Hollow

The NFL has dominated sports news, in terms of commanding press coverage and fan interest since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to professional football. Yet through all of it, the Pittsburgh Steelers have largely remained in the background.

But 2023 was different. The Steelers got out of their comfort zone:

  • Free agents that otherwise would have stayed in Pittsburgh were allowed to walk.
  • Older free agents and/or others with injury histories were brought to the Steel City
  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl authored a draft that made everyone happy
  • “Flawless” isn’t too much of an exaggeration to describe the Steelers preseason effort

Yet, as Washington Commanders fans can assure us, winning the off season Lombardi counts for nothing when the games actually matter. Oh, it’s not that the everything the Steelers did in the off season blew up in their faces. To the contrary:

And that exercise above, ladies and gentleman, is the football analysis equivalent of having the icing off of the top of your cupcake before eating the rest of your dinner. And by cupcake, I’m not talking about the kind your mother made, I’m talking about a Hostess cupcake. You might enjoy a brief sugar high, but everything else will disappoint you as your appetite is spoiled.

Because really everything else the Steelers did in their 2023 opener disappointed.

Losing It in the Trenches

One of the most heartening things about the off season was the front office’s commitment to returning to “Steelers Football.” By “Steelers Football” we mean winning in the trenches because the ones in Black and Gold are the ones hitting the hardest.

First in free agency and then in the draft, the Steelers invested heavily in bulking up their starters and backups on both lines, while signing thumpers to rebuild their inside linebacking corps. Yet the 49ers pushed the Steelers around like rag dolls.

  • You remember that picture-perfect run Jaylen Warren in preseason against the Bills?

Well, the 49ers executed a similar play to open the 2nd half, where Christian McCaffrey ran 65 yards for a touchdown. McCaffrey ran well on that play, but his lineman watch that play again and try to count all of the Steelers defenders who got manhandled on that play.

  • Nor was that an isolated incident. Take away that 65 run and McCafferty still averages over 4 yards a carry.

And the 49ers hardly executed a one-dimensional offense. The Steelers defense might have “contained” George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, but Brandon Aiyuk torched them for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

Granted, on the first touchdown pass Brock Prudy placed the ball with super-human precision, but either way Aiyuk literally caught everything that was thrown his way.

Chicken, Egg or Both?

During the back-half of 2022 the Steelers formula for success on offense was simple:

  • Control the line of scrimmage
  • Create manageable third downs by running hard on first and or second down
  • Count on Kenny Pickett (or Derek Watt if we dare say) to convert those third downs
  • Dominate time of possession

Sure, the Steelers got stuck in the Red Zone more often than not ensuring that a lot of games went down to the buzzer. But it worked.

Fast forward to September 2023. When Mike Tomlin was asked about the poor performance of his offense, he reference the fact that the Steelers started something like 0-5 on third down conversions.

Take away Najee Harris 24 yard run at the end of the 1st half and he averages 1.4 yards per carry. Jaylen Warren wasn’t much better, averaging 2 yards per carry. Suffice to say, there’s no running back controversy in Pittsburgh this morning.

But the offense’s woes don’t lie entirely on the shoulders of the running backs and offensive line. The Steelers tried opening several drives with short passes, but even when they completed those they still found themselves in third and long.

What’s perhaps more worrisome was how they attacked those third and longs. During the second half of 2022 the knock on Kenny Pickett was that he played it safe, avoiding throwing downfield and/or in the middle of the field.

  • Against the 49ers he attacked the middle of the field, and the middle counter attacked.

Perhaps his first interception was due to Diontae Johnson slipping, but he threw a very poor pass dead center in the middle of the field on his second one, and he should have had a third returned for a touchdown.

In his defense, Pickett faced pressure all day. The 49ers sacked him 5 times and registered a total of 9 hits. Couple that with the 8 tackles for losses registered by 49er defenders and Andy Weidl’s “planet theory” of offensive line building looked more like space dust.

Primary Differentiation on Opening Day

Is all hope lost for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers? Of course not. The Steelers opened their previous two seasons with upsets of AFC contenders only to flounder for large portions of both campaigns. Looking further back, during the Cowher Era and opening day blowout was almost a good omen.

  • But with that said, opening day revealed a stark contrast to Steelers Nation.

The San Francisco 49ers looked every bit of the team that’s been to 3 of the last 4 Conference championships and the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a team still searching for its first playoff win since 2016.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the San Francisco 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers are two of the modern NFL’s most storied franchises. The Steelers defined the Gold Standard for excellence in the 1970’s and the 49ers dominated the 1980’s and continued winning Super Bowls into the 1990s.

Going into 2023 the Steelers record against the 49ers is 10-12, but of course time robbed history for a chance to see a definitive match up between titans of separate decades.

However, the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers is filled with both inspiring upsets and disappointing losses for the Steelers. We recount all of them since 1984 here. Click on the links below to relive a specific game, or simply scroll down to read them all.

Donnie Shell, Joe Montana, Steelers vs 49ers

Hall of Famer vs Hall of Famer: Donnie Shell stares down Joe Montana. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via

Steelers vs. 49ers 1984: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I

October 14, 1984 @Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 20, San Francisco 17 

Is there a more celebrated Steelers victory of the 1980’s?

Who can say? No matter what, this game nearly tops the list. The year was 1984, and the 49ers were steamrolling the league. In fact, were it not for one game, the 49ers would have been perfect.

This would be the first time that the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone would square off against Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and this game shows you why we play games instead of leaving the contest to Madden-like computer simulations. The Steelers matched San Fran with tough defense with smart ball control to keep the 49ers off balance the entire day, and in the process added the lone blemish to the 49ers would-be perfect season.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1987: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II

September 13th, 1987, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 30 @ San Francisco 17 

Joe Montana finished the 1987 season with a 102.1 passer rating. Mark Malone finished the 1987 season with a 46.6 passer rating (yes that’s forty six point six.) And although Montana did outplay Malone on this fateful day, it wasn’t enough.

John Stallworth, Ronnie Lott, Steelers vs 49ers

2 Hall of Famers: John Stallworth and Ronnie Lott. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via

Rookie cornerback Delton Hall, linebacker Mike Merriweather, and veteran cornerback Dwayne Woodruff all picked off Montana’s passes. Delton Hall, who won the Steelers rookie of the year award only to fade, opened the game with a 50 yard fumble return to put the Steelers up by 7. Mark Malone only completed 9 of 33 passes, but one of those was for a touchdown to tight end Preston Gothard (who?). Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Harry Newsome teamed to rush for 184 yards and a rookie named Merril Hoge caught his first NFL pass for 27 yards.

  • With this win, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Walsh’s mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL’s all time win list

Steelers vs. 49ers 1990: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I

October 21st, 1990 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 27, Pittsburgh 7 

The 49ers entered the game at 6-0 looking every bit the team en route to a 3 peat, while Pittsburgh entered with a 3-3 record, looking every bit like the team suffering from a hangover following the Steelers storybook 1989 season.

Joe Montana was on fire that year, but the Steelers came with a secret weapon – the NFL’s number one defense that had only given up 3 touchdown passes in 6 games. The Steelers felt they could win this game, if only they could avoid mistakes….

…And mistakes the Steelers made. Although Rod Woodson and Thomas Everett intercepted Montana twice, Joe Walton’s offense failed to capitalize. Barry Foster ‘forgot’ that uncaught kickoffs are live balls, setting up an easy San Fran TD, and a Charles Haley strip sack of Bubby Brister set up another. A 49er’s interception would stop any chance of a Pittsburgh comeback.

  • In their first face off, Rod Woodson held Jerry Rice to 3 catches for just 31 yards.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1993: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II

September 5th, 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 13 

After taking the league by storm in 1992, the NFL scheduled what was to be one of their marquee match ups of opening day by pitting the Steelers vs. the 49ers on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. With Neil O’Donnell on the sidelines with tendonitis during the first half the 49ers built up a 17-3 lead.

Neil O’Donnell came off the bench to get Pittsburgh back in the game narrowing the score to 17-13, before Steve Young connected with Brent Jones for a touchdown, making the Steelers regret that Chuck Noll cut tight end whose sin was to be a better pass catcher than run blocker.

  • In his second match up with Rice, Rod Woodson held him to just 78 yards, but 2 of Rice’s 8 catches were for touchdowns…

Steelers vs. 49ers 1996: Don’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points (and Expect to Win)

December 15th, 1996 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 25, Pittsburgh 15 

It was a tricky time for the Steelers. Already with 10 wins and the division title in the bag, a first round playoff bye remained in their grasp…

…But Mike Tomzack was faltering as the team’s starter, and injuries had ravaged the team all season. The Steelers gave up a quick touchdown, and then a safety to spot the 49ers 9 points. If memory serves, another turnover set up the 49ers next score, putting the Steelers in the hole 16-0.

The Steelers rebounded scoring 15 with touchdowns from Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. But it was not enough as the 49ers also scored a Terrell Owens touchdown and kicked a field goal.

  • In their final match up, Rod Woodson again held Jerry Rice under 100 yards, although Rice did score a touchdown with one of his 8 catches.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1999: Solar Flare, Before a Total Eclipse

November 7, 1999 @ Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 27, San Francisco 6 

After watching the 49ers both beat them 3 straight times and beat them to one for the thumb this was supposed to be the one that Steelers fans had been waiting for. And on paper it was. The Steelers jumped to a 17-3 first half lead on the strength of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward touchdowns and a field goal. The Steelers dominated the score board winning the game 27-3.

After a 2-3 start, the Steelers had now won 3 straight to improve to 5-3. All looked well but… the 49ers Charlie Garner rushed for 166 yards. The following week Kordell Stewart’s fumbled snap led to the upset at the hands of the expansion Browns.

  • The ensuring quarterback controversy would dominate the news, but the failing defense, as Joel Steed’s knees gave way, was one of the under reported stories of the Steelers 1999 meltdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2003: Tommy Gun Misfires

November 17, 2003 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 30, Pittsburgh 

Tommy Maddox had been the 2003 version of Tebowmania having gone from out of football, to the XFL, to resurrecting the Steelers 2002 season. Alas, 2003 was not as kind to Maddox, as the Steelers pass defense struggled, injuries decimated the offensive line, and Cover 2 defenses frustrated Maddox. The ’03 Steelers had gone 2-1 before losing five straight. By the time they were 2-6 they mounted the “win a game, lose a game” see-saw.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers trip to San Francisco came on the downside of that see-saw.

San Francisco opened a 14-0 lead at the end of the first half, and the Steelers feigned making go at it by scoring the first touchdown in the second half, but the 49ers would score 20 unanswered points until Tommy Maddox hooked up with Randel El for a final, face saving touchdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2007: Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin…

September 23, 2007 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, San Francisco 15 

Just two weeks earlier Steelers Nation had no idea about what to make of Mike Tomlin, the man who leapfrogged Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. By the time the 49ers arrived at Heinz Field, Tomlin was already 2 and 0 and notched his third win at San Francisco’s expense.

What stands out when looking at the stat sheet is that role players made all of the splash plays for the Steelers that day. Allen Rosseum got his 15 minutes of fame as a Steeler with a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jerame Tuman caught the only touchdown pass, and Najeh Davenport ran for 39 yard touchdown, while Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six.

On defense the story was a little different, as then starter Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six and veteran James Farrior and rookie LaMarr Woodley both sacked Alex Smith.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2011:  The Night the Lights Went Out @ Candlestick

December 19, 20011 @ Candlestick Park
San Francisco 20, Pittsburgh 3 

This was the last Monday Night Football game played at Candlestick Park and the lights appropriately went out in the middle of the game. Its also marks the moment when the lights went out on the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, who had a chance to leap above the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

Ben Roethlisberger had been injured in a Thursday Night Football contest ten days prior to the game. Mike Tomlin decided to play him. While many defended Tomlin, the truth is Tomlin should have pulled Roethlisberger. This much was clear when Roethlisberger couldn’t even make it to the line of scrimmage in the hurry up offense.

Given Charlie Batch’s rustiness in coming off the b in subsequent games, Tomlin’s decision is more easily understandable. However, Roethlisberger shouldn’t have been on the field.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2015: Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game

September 23rd, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 43, San Francisco 18

The easy lead on this game was that the Steelers offense led by the short-handed Killer Bees scored over 40 points while running just 52 plays. And to be sure, only 6 of Ben Roethlisberger’s passes hit the ground, while Antonio Brown had nearly 200 yards receiving and even Darrius Heyward-Bey looked like he could be a weapon on the passing game.

Ryan Shazier, Colin Kapernick, Steelers vs 49ers

Ryan Shazier corrals Colin Kapernick. Photo Credit:

Mike Tomlin broke form and wasted little time making Shazier his starter as a rookie in 2014. But injuries sidelined Shazier, and when he return he found himself competing for playing time with Vince Williams and Sean Spence. Fans were already beginning to call Shazier a “bust.”

  • Shazier swiftly began altering that narrative that Sunday afternoon against San Francisco.

Shazier exploded with 15 tackles, dropping 3 49ers for losses, a strip-sack, a fumble recovery all while completely neutralizing Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. While some griping over his development continued, this was the first game where Ryan Shazier signaled he could be something really special.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2019: The Mason Rudolph “Era” Begins

September 22nd, @ Levi’s Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 20

Stunning disappointments had marked 2019 thus far for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year began with fallout of Antonio Brown’s late season meltdown, ultimately leading to his trade. Then tragedy struck at St. Vincents as wide receivers coach Darryl Drake died suddenly.

Meanwhile Antonio Brown orchestrated his exit from Oakland, only to land with the Patriots, who creamed the Steelers in the season opener. And to prove that things get worse before they get better, a week later the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

People forget but Rudolph’s first start went saw him play reasonably well, as rookie Diontae Johnson made his presence known while Minkah Fitzpatrick, newly arrived via trade, made an immediate impact, notching an interception, a QB hit and a pass defensed.

The two teams actually traded the lead several times, with the 49ers pulling ahead with just over 1-minute remaining. Mason Rudolph tried to rally, but could only muster 9 yards.

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Steelers Lose to 49ers 24-20 in Mason Rudolph’s 1st Start, Start 2019 0-3

Mason Rudolph completed 14 of 27 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in his first career start, as the Steelers fell to the 49ers, 24-20, Sunday afternoon at Levi Stadium.

The loss dropped the Steelers to 0-3 and was very similar to many they’ve had dating back to last November 25, when they started what has now become a 2-7 slide.

Close but no cigar.

Much like a week earlier against the Seahawks, Pittsburgh’s defense was quite dominant in the first half, and on the third play from scrimmage, a 49ers screen pass that was intended for Mike Breida glanced off the running back’s hand and wound up in the arms of outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who returned it to the San Francisco 33.

Unfortunately, three quick passes by Rudolph netted just five years, and kicker Chris Boswell came on to try a 46-yard field goal, which he converted to make it 3-0, Pittsburgh.

Following an exchange of punts, the Steelers defense played takeaway once again, when cornerback Joe Haden tipped a pass into the arms of newly-acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrack, who returned the interception 14 yards to the San Francisco 24-yard line.

Once again, the Steelers offense couldn’t take full advantage and had to settle for a second Boswell field goal, this time from 26 yards away, to make it 6-0.

The 49ers advanced into Pittsburgh territory on their following drive, but again, they were victimized by the turnover bug when Fitzpatrick knocked the football out of the grasps of running back Raheem Mostert, and Devin Bush recovered it at the Steelers nine-yard line.

Following a quick punt by the Steelers, the 49ers again moved the football into Pittsburgh territory and again fumbled it away, when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo couldn’t handle the snap from center, and Bush recovered the fumble at the Steelers seven.

The Steelers offense struggled to move the ball the rest of the first half, and San Francisco finally got on the board late in the second period thanks to a 24-yard field goal by Robbie Gould to make it 6-3.

All-in-all, the Steelers defense took the football away four times in the first half, and all the offense could muster was 76 yards and six points.

Pittsburgh received the second half kickoff and immediately gave the ball back to the 49ers when a Rudolph pass intended for receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was intercepted by cornerback K’Waun Williams, who returned it four yards to the Steelers 38.

Unlike Pittsburgh, the 49ers offense quickly took advantage of the takeaway and took a 10-6 lead on an eight-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard touchdown run by running back Jeff Wilson Jr.

After the two teams exchanged punts, the Steelers regained the lead thanks to a 76-yard touchdown catch and run by Smith-Schuster.

The Steelers defense offered little resistance on the following drive, as the 49ers marched 75 yards on 10 plays and re-took the lead on another touchdown run by Wilson Jr., this time from four yards out.

The Steelers struck back with 10:22 left in the game, when Rudolph found rookie receiver Diontae Johnson on a 39-yard touchdown pass to give Pittsburgh a 20-17 lead. The big break on the drive came one play earlier when a deep pass intended for James Washington resulted in defensive pass interference.

Once again, the Steelers defense seemed to show little resistance in protecting a three-point lead. But just when it looked like San Francisco would jump back in front, a pitchout intended for receiver Richie James was muffed and recovered by Watt at the Steelers 14 with just 6:49 left in the game–the unit’s fifth takeaway on the afternoon.

Sadly for the Steelers, they re-gifted the fumble three plays later, when running back James Conner was stripped of the football, and the 49ers recovered the fumble at the Pittsburgh 24-yard line.

Needing to hold the 49ers to a field goal attempt, Pittsburgh’s defense came up small, first on a holding penalty on inside linebacker Mark Barron on third down and 11 that gave the 49ers a fresh set of downs at the nine. Two plays later, Dante Pettis pulled in a five-yard touchdown pass from Garroppolo to make it 24-20 with just 1:15 remaining.

There would be no Mason Magic to end the game, as the offense quickly turned the ball over on downs to put the final nail in the Steelers 0-3 coffin.

Pittsburgh’s offense tallied just 239 yards and a paltry 11 first downs. And, much like the previous week against Seattle, Keith Butler‘s defense seemed to wither down the stretch after a quick start. For the day, the unit surrendered 436 total yards–including 168 on the ground.

As for the Steelers ground game, it netted just 79 yards on the day–including 43 on 13 carries by Conner, who, again, had a costly fumble late in the fourth quarter.

Next up for the Steelers is a prime-time affair against the Bengals next Monday night at Heinz Field.

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Lesson from Steelers Playoff Win Over Cincinnati? Have Patience with Players Like Ryan Shazier

The Pittsburgh Steelers Wild Card victory over the Cincinnati Bengals was special. Ivan Cole of Going Deep with the Steelers went as far as to compare it to the Immaculate Reception.

  • Nothing matches the intensity of a comeback playoff win.

Sometimes those comebacks signal franchise transformation, sometimes they do not… The Immaculate Reception and the 2005 AFC Divisional playoff win over the Colts proved to be transformational; the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers and Tommy Maddox’s 2002 comeback vs. Cleveland were phenomenal feats, but neither was transformational.

Father time will give us the context to properly appreciate this Steelers playoff win, but there’s an important lesson Steelers Nation can learn today.

Remember Steelers Nation: Patience is a Virtue

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette did Steelers Nation a service on game day, writing a full length article detailing the Pittsburgh Steelers then 5 year playoff “slump” with the fortunes of several NFL teams.

Had the Steelers lost on Saturday it would have indeed given the franchise its first 5 year playoff drought since the Immaculate Reception, but the trust of Bouchette’s article is that this pales in comparison to what other teams have weathered.

Bouchette’s article brought to mind a recent Twitter exchange that followed the Steelers loss to Baltimore:

ryan shazier, steelers, ravens, bengals, jarvis jones, bud dupree, draft picks, linebackers

Twitter exchange Ryan Shazier, Steelers linebackers, on after Ravens loss

Out of respect to the other party, the person’s name and photo have been removed. But you can see the substance of the exchange itself. And two weeks later, Mr. Anonymous rant rings just a tad bit ironic, doesn’t it?

  • To be fair, Ryan Shazier’s trajectory since the Steelers drafted him has been anything but a straight line.

The Steelers instantly installed him as their inside starting linebacker as early as minicamp and did not look back. Shazier started the Steelers first three games, but was injured in the victory over Carolina.

  • There Shazier’s tale gets twisted.

Word was that Mike Tomlin was not happy with Shazier’s rehab efforts. And when Shazier returned to full health, he was forced to split time with Sean Spence and Vince Williams. Truth be told, Shaizer made a number of under the radar plays during the later half of 2014, but it appeared that Mike Tomlin wanted to send the rookie a lesson.

Still, Shazier’s status entering 2015 was never in doubt. Just how dominating was Shazier’s breakout game against the 49ers? It almost seemed as if he could have taken on the entire 49ers offense himself. But injuries hit Shazier again in 2015, causing him to miss 4 games. This prompted Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler to publically remind Ryan Shazier “If you are waiting to feel good before you play, you are never going to play.”

But when Shazier’s been on the field, he’s been effective. Perhaps not a superstar, but his game-clinching interception vs. Denver was, in the words of Mike Tomlin, the kind of play the Steelers drafted him to make.

Did Ryan Shazier play poorly vs. the Baltimore Ravens? Yes and find me  a Pittsburgh Steeler not named DeAngelo Williams who didn’t. But is that any reason to give up on a player who has yet to complete his second season as starter? No, it is not.

  • And that’s the lesson to take out of the Steelers Wild Card Win over the Bengals.

It takes time for most athletes, even incredibly talented ones, to develop into quality NFL Players.

Of course Steelers fans can readily rattle off names like Ben Roethlisberger, Rod Woodson and Joe Greene, but these men are exceptions, not the rule.

  • It is actually quite normal for future Hall of Famers to struggle early in their careers.

Troy Polamalu sat on the bench for a year. Lynn Swann caught just 11 passes as a rookie. And it was only in 1975, with one Super Bowl in hand, that Terry Bradshaw authored in a season where he threw more touchdowns than interceptions.

  • Against the Bengals, Ryan Shazier did what the great ones do: He stepped up and made something happen.

Even before forcing Jeremy Hill’s fumble, Shazier had played a solid game by any measure. But what Shazier at very end was on the same plane as what Franco Harris did in 1972, Rod Woodson did in 1989 or Troy Polamalu did in 2008. There’s a word for players like that: Special.

Sometimes the special ones take time to grow into their own. So have patience Steelers Nation and remember that Hall of Fame careers are authored on the field and not in the draft room.

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Steelers vs Browns Test of “Pittsburgh Plays Better on Tape Delay” Theory….

As regular readers know, Steel Curtain Rising is written out of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Watching the NFL from South America’s “Dagger pointed at heart of Antarctica” has its pros and cons.

When I first moved here that meant only being able to see 2-3 games per year, and even then it required getting up at 2 or 3 am (and having to get up for work the next day.) Night games are hell, particularly after the US goes “fall forward.”

  • The flipside is, it is relatively easy to watch Steelers games on tape delay without knowing the ending.

This is of course theoretically possible to do in the US, but a lot harder to execute in practice. I’d imagine it would be dam near impossible for someone living in Pittsburgh to pull this off, and even for the legion of Steelers fans in Steelers Nation, it would still take a fair amount of discipline, cooperation from friends (and enemies) and a fair amount of luck.

And while the rational side of my brain reminds me that there’s no connection between when I watch and how the Steelers play, the sentimental side of my brain is wont to give into superstition.

  • And the Steelers generally do well on tap delay.

My first experience with tape delay was good: the 2001 Steelers beat the Titans and Ravens at Heinz Field. In 2002 the Steelers followed up their Dread the Spread season opening loss to the Patriots by laying an egg vs. the Raiders, the later of which I saw on tape delay. Yet, later in 2002, the Steelers beat Peyton Manning and the Colts on Monday Night Football.

  • 2003 wasn’t so kind as the Steelers dropped Prime Time games to the Browns and 49ers on tape delay.
  • Ditto 2005 where tape delay had the Steelers losing to the Colts on Monday Night Football.

Since getting Direct TV in 2008, the Steelers record on tape delay is quite good. They beat the Cowboy at home on the strength of Deshea Townsend pick six. A year later, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Mike Wallace with just 5 seconds remaining to beat the Packers at home.

And so comes the Steelers 2015 season closer vs. the Cleveland Browns. This is one game that the Steelers will have to work to lose, which as last week’s loss to the Ravens reveals, they’re capable of doing it. But with Browns coach Mike Pettine reportedly already set to be fired, the Steelers should win this one in a walk.

  • So no tape delay assist (should be) needed.

However, Steelers vs. Browns is not the only iron Steelers Nation has in the fire as the 2015 NFL season closes. As EVERYONE knows, if Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills upset the New York Jets, the Steelers will make it to the playoffs….

…On paper the Jets should clobber the Bills.

But Rex Ryan has already upset his former employer. Doing so twice in one season, especially with the playoffs on the line for the Jets and the Bills only playing for pride is an uphill battle.

In other words, a perfect test for tape delay. Go Steelers!

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Steelers Should Not Play Ben Roethlisberger vs the Browns

Word out of the South Slide is that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was able to practice in a limited capacity on Thursday and is holding out hope that he can play Sunday at Heinz Field vs. the Cleveland Browns.

Per Dejan Kovacevic of DK on Pittsburgh Sports, Ben Roethlisberger practiced in a limited capacity. While news of Ben Roethlisberger practicing is by definition good, it also comes with a danger. Ben Roethlisberger clearly wants to play vs. the Cleveland Browns, and his desire is understandable.

  • The Steelers are only one game above .500
  • Pittsburgh is 0-2 in the AFC North
  • The Steelers are 2-4 in the AFC
  • The Cleveland Browns are the Steelers final home divisional game this season

All of those spell “Must Win” for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Landry Jones closed out the Steelers games vs. the Cardinals and the Raiders with “saves,” to borrow a baseball analogy, he struggled in his first start vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. A healthy Roethlisberger gives the Steelers a better chance to win. That’s a no brainer. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin seemingly has a difficult decision to make.

  • But it shouldn’t be hard at all.

The Steelers should not play Ben Roethlisberger vs the Browns unless he is absolutely 100% healthy.

Steelers, Tomlin, Roethlisberger, Have Seen this Movie Before

The Steelers situation is not at all unlike the one they faced in 2011. Ben Roethlisberger injured his ankle in a Thursday night game vs. the Browns. Roethlisberger stayed in the game and put on a performance that was nothing short of heroic. After the game Roethlisberger vowed to play in the Steelers upcoming game at Candlestick Park vs. the 49ers.

Everyone remembers that game as the game that prompted Roger Goodell to suspend James Harrison. But the more important news coming out of the game was the choice Mike Tomlin had to make at quarterback.

  • Mike Tomlin opted to play Ben Roethlisberger.

Even when it was clear that Roethlisberger was nowhere near 100%, he kept Roethlisberger in the game, despite having Charlie Batch in the bullpen. Given Batch’s rustiness in coming off the bench at times, Tomlin’s decision to start Roethlisberger was understandable. But Ben Roethlisberger was hurt so badly that he could not even make it back to the line of scrimmage after long completions during the hurry up offense.

Worse yet, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and threw 3 interceptions. Tomlin started Batch as the Steelers shut out the St. Louis Rams the following week. Ben Roethlisberger returned for the Steelers 2011 season finale vs. the Browns, and then for the playoff loss at Denver.

  • But Roethlisberger clearly wasn’t the same quarterback.

Fans remember many things about the playoff loss to Tim Tebow, but Mike Wallace dropping a sure touchdown pass is one of them. While that added fuel to the anti-Wallace bandwagon, the truth is Roethlisberger couldn’t deliver on that pass because he was playing hurt.

  • The Steelers resigned Ben Roethlisberger to an 108 million dollar contract this off season.

It was the right move for all parties involved. All signs indicate that the Steelers have the nucleus of players around Roethlisberger on both offense and defense to make a serious Super Bowl run in 2016 and perhaps that window extends into 2017. But none of it will matter much if Ben Roethlisberger is too injured to play.

The good news is that Ben Roethlisberger seems to be aware of his limitations, as he told Pittsburgh Tribune Review Reporter Mark Kaboly “If I can’t do that, there is no need to be out there.” That’s good news, but not nearly as good as what he told Kaboly next, when he refused to lay odds on his playing:

If I am feeling good enough and if coach determines I am well enough to be out there Sunday, then that’s the goal. I can’t give you a percentage because my percentage is probably different than his percentage.

While it’s impossible to read tea leaves here, it at least seems like Mike Tomlin is taking a more cautious approach to keeping his starting quarterback healthy than he did in 2011. And if that’s a welcome sign.

Let’s repeat it for prosperity: the Pittsburgh Steelers should not play Ben Roethlisberger vs the Browns if there’s even a shadow of a doubt about his health and mobility.

Williams Practices Fully, Harrison, Shazier, Thomas Out

The Steelers did get some good news with no strings attached on the injury/practice front, as starting running back DeAngelo Williams practiced fully after missing the previous two days. William’s absence at practice highlighted the Steelers thin depth at running back, leaving only Jordan Todman and Isaiah Pead behind him.

All of the news was not good, however. James Harrison, Ryan Shazier and Shamarko Thomas all missed practice, and will presumably not play vs. the Browns.

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Larger Lesson Behind Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game vs. 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers 43-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers gave Steelers Nation a lot of positives to chew on. The Steelers offense, down by two of its best players, showed it could be a dominate force. And the Steelers defense showed that it had zero intent on throwing in the towel and calling 2015 a “rebuilding year.”

  • But perhaps the most encouraging sign was Ryan Shazier’s breakout game against the 49ers.

Just how good was Ryan Shazier? How about 15 tackles, 3 of them for losses, a sack a forced fumble, a QB hit and a complete neutralization of Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. But there’s larger lesson that goes beyond Shazier’s statistics.

Shazier’s performance was a potentially transformative, and fully appreciating the importance of Ryan Shazier’s breakout game requires going back to words of wisdom Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell penned a year ago.

Last October, the Steelers were 3-3, licking their wounds after a loss in which the Cleveland Browns were clearly the better team. Wexell seized upon that moment to author “Deja Vu All Over Again” in what was perhaps the best piece on the 2014 Steelers.

In “Deja Vu All Over Again,” Wexell graphically reconstructs the the Steelers 2000 season, building the back story with insights that only a true insider can offer. In a nutshell, Wexell compared Mike Tomlin’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 Steelers to Bill Cowher’s 1998, 1999, and 2000 Steelers.

In Wexell’s eyes, both teams were going through the natural rebuilding growing pains that inflict even the best franchises. Wexell recounts the key decisions made by Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert, enumerating both the brilliant and boneheaded ones, and reminding readers that all of them were controversial at the time. (Wexell also calls out some of the more inane arguments made at the time by certain members of the Pittsburgh media).

The crux of Wexell’s argument is that chief difference between the two eras is that Mike Tomlin benefited from having Ben Roethlisberger calling his signals whereas Cowher was stuck with Kordell Stewart. Wexell’s observations made sense, and Steel Curtain Rising thought to do a detailed, position-by-position breakdown of the Steelers 1998, 1999, and 2000 rosters with their 2012, 2013, and 2014 counterparts.

Alas, there simply wasn’t time.

  • Fortunately, there is time to connect the dots between his final argument, and Shazier’s breakout performance vs. the 49ers.

Wexell concluded this piece with this observation:

Maybe one or two of these current free agents can contribute to a championship the way Von Oelhoffen did, but to tell the truth it’s all melding together in my mind at this point.
I am certain, though, that even in this state of deja vu, I have watched an organization use patience to crawl out of a hole by making one smart decision at a time. And they have no choice but to use that method once again.

The 2014 Steelers of course went 8-2 immediately after Wexell penned that article, but 8-2 seemed like a pipe dream when Pittsburgh was at 3-3. And part of the reason for the turn around, was that the Steelers were already “making one smart decision at a time.”

Today that might seem self-evident, but that was hardly the case on draft day 2014. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone knew the Steelers were going to take a cornerback. The only question seemed to be whether they get a shot at Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, or Calvin Pryor. Were those men absent, (and Gilbert was supposedly the one the Steelers wanted), Pittsburgh would look to wide receiver.

  • Inside linebacker wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.

Steel Curtain Rising’s 2014 Steelers Draft Need Matrix had cornerback and wide receiver at its top. The Steelers 2014 draft needs at inside linebacker was rated as 7th, citing the presence of Lawrence Timmons, improved play by Vince Williams, potential by Terence Garvin, and the possibility that Sean Spence could rebound.

  • Shazier’s game vs. the 49ers proves that it is a good thing that neither Mike Tomlin nor Kevin Colbert ever read Steel Curtain Rising.

Seriously. Tomlin and Colbert, along with Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake clearly knew that even in April 2014 inside linebacker was far deeper than defensive back for the Steelers. They also knew they’d be without the services of Jerricho Cotchery and couldn’t have seen enough of Markus Wheaton to be comfortable at WR.

  • In the end, it didn’t matter.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

The Steelers brain trust saw a potential super star in Ryan Shaizer and did the same thing they’re Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, and Bill Nunn did in 40 years earlier in the Steelers 1974 Draft when they had two “good” wide receivers in Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin. They saw the chance to grab two great ones in the form of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • And that’s the lesson behind Ryan Shazier’s breakout game vs. the 49ers.

Sure, the Steelers might be in a personnel slump with their secondary. Perhaps Pittsburgh’s playoff chances in 2015 will be limited because of it. But in just his 7th official NFL start, Shaizer showed Steelers Nation that he can be truly great.

And in picking him in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Steelers were simply “making one smart decision at a time” as Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49er’s offense can attest.

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Steelers Report Card for 49ers Win

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can help but feel proud of the young defensive recruits on the rise, here is the Steelers Report Card from the Pittsburgh’s win over San Francisco.

Is there a better quarterback right now in the NFL? Perhaps there is, but it would be hard to improve on the quarterback play in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger went 21-27 for three touchdowns and 369 and was excellent on third downs and a near super human 13.7 yards per attempt. All on a day when he tied Terry Bradshaw’s career victories record at 107. Grade: A+steelers, report card, grade, 49ers, heinz field

Running Backs
No one is ready to say Le’Veon who? But DeAngelo Williams has demonstrated why, even in this ”Thou Shalt Not Run” era of NFL football team needs a solid backup running back. For the second straight week Williams ran hard and ran well. While Williams didn’t have a “dominating performance,” the Steelers ran when they needed to, particularly in the Red Zone where Williams scored three touchdowns, a feat last accomplished by Willie Parker in 2008. Jordan Todman got the lone other carry, but he took it for 11 yards. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
A week after passing Lynn Swann as the Steelers number 2 all time receiver, Heath Miller only found himself targeted twice. In true Miller fashion, he caught both passes, including one for a touchdown. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
While no one is saying, “Le’Veon who?” a couple more wide receiver performances like we saw yesterday in Pittsburgh might be people asking, “Martavis who?” Markus Wheaton only had two catches on four targets but Wheaton his 48 yard reception set up William’s third touchdown rush, and essentially put the game away for good. Darrius Heyward-Bey showed off his speed and the catching skills he showed in the touchdown he scored did justice to his number 88 jersey. What more can we say about Antonio Brown? 9 catches for 195 yards almost makes it seem like he and Roethlisberger can do it all by themselves. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Caution was the word going into this game. The San Francisco 49ers liked a Rex Ryan style offense, featuring 2, 3 and even 4 tight ends.

  • Could the Steelers defense line go toe-to-toe?
  • Would they have the endurance to keep pace? The answers are yes and yes.

The Steelers limited 49ers running backs to 2.7 yards per carry and took the fight to the 49ers backfield. Both Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt had sacks, and tackles for losses. While Daniel McCullers, Cam Thomas, and Steve McLendon’s stat sheets are similarly flashy, Johnny Mitchell rotated his lineman regularly, and no one noticed the difference. Grade: A


Lawrence Timmons bounced back after a subpar game vs. New England making nine tackles and defensing a pass. Bud Dupree now has two sacks in as many NFL games, he also had a tackle for a loss and a QB hit. Jarvis Jones didn’t make an “splash” plays, but he did record 5 tackles. Arthur Moats had 3 tackles, half a sack, a tackle for a loss and a QB hit. James Harrison had two tackles and a QB hit. Those would be impressive numbers by themselves for the linebacking crops. But they all pale by Ryan Shazier’s game, where he made 15 tackles, dropped three people behind the line of scrimmage, had a drive-killing sack, and recovered a fumble to set up another touchdown. Grade: A+


What a difference a week makes. Antwon Blake led the secondary with 11 tackles and one for a loss, but more importantly, he had a pass defensed. As did William Gay. As did Will Allen. As did Brandon Boykin. These types of aggressive challenges to receivers were missing vs. New England and their return was welcome. As was the hard hitting which helped contribute to drops as the game wore on. The 49ers ran 3 drives that entered the Red Zone and totaled 48 plays but only yielded 3 points. That only happens if the secondary is doing its job. While the arrow is pointing up on the Steelers secondary this week, the unit also allowed a 75 touchdown catch where Torrey Smith went untouched. This brings their grade down. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Punter Jordan Berry was the star here as he boomed off a 62 yard punt just when the Steelers needed him and average 47.5 yards. Antonio Brown returned on punt for 16 yards, but a player of his caliber should not be returning punts except in critical situations. While the 49ers punt and kick returners were hardly a threat to disrupt the game, their averages were a little high than one would desire. Josh Scobee missed an extra point kick, which coupled with his two misses last week isn’t comforting. Grade: B-

Keith Butler promised more aggressive use of his defensive lineman, and if the 49ers game previews things to come, which it might not, then that is an encouraging sign. The Steelers have invested heavily in their linebacking crops, and that showed vs. the 49ers. Moreover, the communication issues which plagued the Steelers defense vs. New England were not evident.

It may have taken a lot of growing pains to get there, but Todd Haley has Ben Roethlisberger playing the best football of his life. Yes, he has a strong supporting cast, but the fact that the offense is missing two of its most explosive players shows you just how well this group is firing on all cylinders.

Mike Tomlin preached balance after the loss to New England and was preaching it after the 49er’s win. That is good. The first 12 games of the 2014 season were characterized by some rather wild swings in the quality of the Steelers performances, and Tomlin appears to be attempting to keep the team on an even keel. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
369 yards passing and 3 touchdowns through the air and 3 more on the ground is nice. So is one receiver catching 9 passes for just under 200 yards. These offensive fireworks are fun to watch, and they make the fantasy owners happy.

  • But all of this is made possible by something that entire franchise of fantasy football fails to mention – spectacular offensive line play.

Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert might not get stats, you might not hear people moaning, “Oh, I wish I’d started DeCastro this week” but the simple fact is that their play is what allows the Roethlisbergers, Browns, Millers and Williams of the Steelers offense to excel.

To the point. The San Francisco 49ers failed to touch Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers ran the ball when they had to. And for that the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over San Francisco 49ers.

Thanks for reading. Click here to read other Steelers Report Cards.

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Steelers Defense Dominates 49ers, Offense Steals Show in 43-18 Pittsburgh Win

The script for the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers was supposed to be simple: The Steelers offense would soar while the Steelers defense struggled.

The Steelers offense didn’t soar but it was only few mistakes and mental errors away going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady. The defense held up its end of the bargain, it struggled with no qualifiers necessary. Pittsburgh rebounded in week 2 at Heinz Field, as the Steelers defeated the San Francisco 49ers 43-18.

While the Steelers offensive explosion will generate most of the headlines and highlights, the real headline of the Steelers win over the 49ers  should read, “Steelers defense dominates 49ers.”

Steelers Offense Steals the Show vs. 49ers. Literally.

Let’s establish one fact.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers offense deserves the accolades it earned for its performance over the 49ers.

Of course the Steelers weren’t playing the 2000 Ravens, the 86 Bears, or either incarnation of the Dallas Doomsday Defense that Terry Bradshaw and company grappled with in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII. But a tweet for Alex Kozora helps puts things into perspective:

That’s by far not the only set of numbers that illustrate how lethal the Steelers offensive effort was vs. the 49ers today. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards and only saw 6 of his passes hit the ground. Antonio Brown caught 195 yards worth of those passes even when the 49ers knew the ball was coming his way.

Wearing Number 88, Darrius Heyward-Bey made a very Lynn Swann like catch, while Markus Wheaton only made two catches, but as his trade mark, he made both of them count. And for the second straight week, DeAngelo Williams made Steelers Nation forget the team was missing someone named Le’Veon Bell.

If the Steelers win over the 49ers is in anyway indicative things to come in 2015, then one can only imagine what this offense will do when it is fully armed an operational with Bell and Martavis Bryant in the lineup.

Steelers Defense Dominates 49ers

The Steelers offensive explosion was fun to watch. It undoubtedly made a lot of fantasy owners happy. But Steelers Nation should not allow such fireworks to overshadow the most important development to come out of the Steelers victory over the 49ers:

  • The near dominating performance of the Steelers defense.

It is a shame that the saber metrics number crunching types have never bothered to find a way to give defense its due in fantasy football, because without it, fantasy football so badly distorts what really matters in football.

Fortuantely, Pittsburgh-based AP writer Will Graves does appreciate what real football is all about, even when you reduce it to mere numbers:

IT says here that scoring touchdowns is always a good thing. But back in 2002 the Steelers learned a difficult lesson during the days of Tommy Maddox:

  • It does little good to have a quick-strike offense if your defense fails to keep the other team out of the end zone.

That weak link of the 2002 Steelers defense was decidedly its secondary. Bill Belinick saw it, sent out 4 and 5 wide receiver formations, didn’t run once in the second half and taught the Steelers to dread the spread. The 2015 San Francisco 49ers offense isn’t set up the same way, but the secondary is the weakest spot on the 2015 Steelers depth chart.

As Will Graves points out, the San Francisco 49ers might have won the time of possession battle, but defense won the war.

  • Holding any offense in the NFL to 3 points on 3 Red Zone possessions is impressive.

What is more impressive, is the way in which Keith Butler’s defense went about doing it. They were physical, athletic and aggressive. The Steelers secondary might not be strength of the team, but the Steelers defeat of the 49ers shows that you can make up for deficiencies in the secondary with strong play up front. Consider that:

  • Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward, Arthur Moats and Stephon Tuitt all recorded or shared sacks
  • Six Steelers defenders recorded sacks behind the line of scrimmage, including cornerback Antwon Blake and William Gay
  • The Steelers defense held Carlos Hyde to 43 yards, one week after he romped for 168 vs. Minnesota

And while Colin Kaepernick’s 51 yards on 8 carries looks pretty on the stat sheet, he never came close to breaking free through the Steelers secondary.

Keeping the Steelers Defensive Performance vs. the 49ers in Perspective

Just as the San Francisco 49ers defense isn’t a walking reincarnation of the 86 Bears, this edition of the 49ers offense isn’t he 49er offenses led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice let alone those of Steve Young and Terrell Owens.

Perhaps Mike Tomlin put it best when asked to assess his defense:

We weren’t perfect. We gave up some big plays, particularly in the second half, but we will take the win.

The Steelers defense did give up two touchdown, and although one of them was in the Red Zone, another came on a 75 yard pass to Torrey Smith. This type of big play is not the thing the Steelers can afford to give up against a greater opponent.

But even a blemish such as that can’t alter the reality of the Steelers win over the 49ers: The Steelers defense turned in a far better performance than any of the pundits thought them capable of.

And that is far more encouraging than all of the offensive fireworks.

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