Tuesday, December 20, 2011

49ers dim Steelers' bid for top AFC seed with 20-3 victory

SAN FRANCISCO – Alex Smith wore a blue work shirt to Candlestick Park on Monday, the type of apparel you might see from your auto mechanic. It had a white patch on the chest, with his first name stitched inside in red. This was all part of a definitive statement.

The 49ers went to work and, in fact, brought their metal lunch pails, hard hats and all other figurative symbols of blue-collar grunt for the much-anticipated matchup against the traditionally scrappy Pittsburgh Steelers.

And work they did.

On a night when the lights went out at The Stick — twice, in fact — the 49ers short-circuited the Steelers and scored a 20-3 gut-check victory.

A gimpy Ben Roethlisberger?

No matter. The 49ers defense, playing without injured All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, showed no mercy for the visiting quarterback who threw for 330 yards but limped, grimaced, winced and hobbled on a left foot tenderized by a high ankle sprain suffered 11 days earlier.
USA TODAY Sports on Twitter!

To get the latest sports news from USA TODAY, including game results, columns and features, follow us on Twitter at @USATODAYSports.

San Francisco intercepted Roethlisberger three times and forced him into another turnover with a fumble. They converted three of the turnovers into 13 points. Sacked Big Ben three times, too.

"Defense played lights out," Smith said, igniting laughter during his post-game press conference. "No pun intended."

Said Roethlisberger: "I am not going to make any excuses. I played a bad football game. I turned the ball over. That one is on me."

The 49ers defense, which set an NFL record by starting a season with a 14th game without allowing a rushing touchdown, sure made life easier on the home quarterback. It held Pittsburgh to a season-low three points and gave Smith a cushion to work with.

He passed for 187 yards, which is hardly a staggering number in today's pass-happy NFL. But perhaps most importantly, Smith was never sacked and didn't commit a turnover. His execution when it mattered most — like on a sprint rollout throwback to tight end Vernon Davis for 21 yards, setting up a deft, 1-yard touchdown toss to Davis on the following play in the third quarter that widened the lead to 13-3 — was nearly flawless.

It helped the 49ers (11-3), who have already clinched the NFC West crown, move a step closer to securing a first-round bye and stay ahead of the New Orleans Saints in chasing the No. 2 seed.

"Biggest game since I've been here," said Smith, a seventh-year pro. "Both teams had a lot on the line."

Pittsburgh (10-4), playing without suspended All-Pro linebacker James Harrison, squandered a chance to gain sole possession of first place in the AFC North.

"We need to acknowledge that was 49er football tonight," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "We played the game on their terms. They created turnovers. They got us with a few concept plays. They controlled the ball. They played with the lead and played how they play.

"We had an opportunity and we didn't seize it."

The 49ers gained more than 100 fewer yards than Pittsburgh (389-287), but didn't waste opportunities. For instance, early in the fourth quarter, after rookie Aldon Smith barreled in to force Roethlisberger's fumble, recovered by Justin Smith at the Steelers 17, the 49ers quickly cashed in with a 5-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore (18 rushes, 65 yards) for the points that essentially shut the door on a comeback.

Interestingly, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh elected to forgo the points that would have been provided by a third David Akers field goal, and keep driving after Lawrence Timmons was flagged for a controversial leaping penalty on the 28-yard field goal try.

"With the field goal, it would have still been a two-score game," Harbaugh explained. "By scoring the touchdown, we made it a three-score game."

Harbaugh, a front-runner for NFL Coach of the Year honors after leading the 49ers to the franchise's first playoff berth since 2002 in his first year, hailed the completeness of the victory.

"It was a team win," he said.

It was also one in which the 49ers won't soon forget for other reasons.

Kickoff was delayed for about 20 minutes after a transformer, located outside the stadium, failed. The power source was switched to a backup generator.

What was it like in the 49ers locker room during the pregame blackout?

"It was dark," Harbaugh said, matter-of-factly. "Everybody just kind of rolled with it."

The second outage, early in the second quarter, caused a 16-minute delay.

"Strange," Smith said. "Not something you anticipate. The first time, in here, wasn't nearly as bad. But when you're sitting out there on the field and they go out and you don't know how long it's going to take … you just kind of deal with it."

At that point, Harrison — serving a one-game suspension for an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, and watching from afar — jokingly tweeted: "If I can't play, nobody can play."

Obviously, that was a tweet the 49ers never received.

author:jarrett bell

No comments: