Two of the best teams in the NFL clash on the Monday Night Football stage tonight, as the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) and San Francisco 49ers 10-3) both look to continue their stellar seasons with a clutch win in one of the biggest offerings for Monday Night Football this year.
Though the San Francisco 49ers have dropped two of their last three games heading into this Week 15 match-up with the Steelers, this year’s 49ers are still one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch, as new head coach Jim Harbaugh has had an immediate impact that is especially notable in the outstanding defensive play produced by his squad. Ranking 1st in the league against the run and 4th overall, the 49ers look to have a key advantage against Pittsburgh in this match-up, as it’s still unclear whether or not the Steelers’ quarterback Ben Rothlisberger (3526 yards, 21 TDs, 11 INTs, %64.3 completion rate) will even be in the line-up for game time tonight. Suffering a high-ankle sprain on December 8th against the Browns, Rothlisberger has had 10 days off since that Thursday Night game, but may be a scratch even now that that the Steelers stand a chance of overcoming the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North, as they will need a healthy Big Ben heading into the playoffs. With similar logic already in play for center Maurkice Pouncey, who will sit out tonight’s game in order to rest an ankle injury of his own, counting on a full game from Rothlisberger would be highly optimistic. As such, the 49er defense that is allowing just 70. 5 yards per game may get a lucky break from the get-go, against a Pittsburgh team that may be forced into playing back-up QB Charlie Batch, and running the ball with Rashard Mendenhall (187 carries, 710 yards, 8 TDs) many more times than they’d normally wish to in this match-up.
In this defensive battle, the stout 49ers defense aren’t even the best unit on the field in terms of season statistics, as the Pittsburgh Steelers have the league’s 2nd best overall defense, ranking 1st against the pass and 6th against the run. Allowing just 97 yards on the ground and a measly 179 yards through the air, the opportunistic Steeler defense led by Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu is always a serious threat to be able to turn the tides of any game by themselves. However, with injuries mounting and a looming suspension for linebacker James Harrison (8 sacks) set to be served for tonight’s game, it will be interesting to see if the Steelers can fill a couple gaps and remain competitive on defense. Luckily for Pittsburgh though, their depth on defense along with their ability to overcome key losses should have them on at least even footing with the 49ers defense tonight. Also lucky for the Steelers is the fact that San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith (2565 yards, 15 TDs, 5 INTs) is coming off his worst game of the season, and may suffer further from lead running back Frank Gore (234 carries, 1054 yards, 6 TDs) slowing down due to injury and being overworked as usual year-in and year-out. Add in the fact that the 49ers have struggled mightily in the red zone, ranking last in the league (converting just 35.6 percent of red zone trips into TDs, and only 3 TDs in their last 20 tries), and Pittsburgh may have an advantage for tonight’s likely low-scoring match-up regardless of whether Rothlisberger even plays at all.
While the San Francisco 49ers defense should give the Steelers offense a ton of trouble on Monday Night, it will be key for them in a grinding game to control the tempo of the contest as well as ball possession with a productive ground game and short passing attack. That starts first and foremost with Frank Gore, but with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh already stating that Gore “is not completely 100 percent”, it’s yet to be seen if he’ll be able to survive a complete game against a hard-hitting Steeler defense. With Gore already slipping on production and going for no more than 88 yards in his past 5 outings while turning in just 55 yards per game during that stretch, San Francisco will have to be ready to put back-up running back Kendall Hunter (82 carries, 322 yards, 2 TDs) into action, especially if Gore pulls up lame in tonight’s game. Regardless of that unfortunate scenario for the 49ers, against the Steelers defense that isn’t as good against the run as they are against the pass, we may see a lot of carries go to Hunter anyway, as he and Gore may be the only way San Francisco can move the ball. While the ground game must be effective for the 49ers to prevail at home tonight, Alex Smith simply has to be better as well. With great receivers like Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis leading the team in catches, Smith’s accuracy has to be on point and he has to find a way to strike through the elite Pittsburgh secondary. If not, we could see a bevy of field goals in San Francisco’s future, especially given their poor showing in the red zone on a regular basis.
For the Steeler offense, it’s going to be tough to gauge how they stack up against the very good 49er defense, but regardless of whether Big Ben Rothlisberger or Charlie Batch starts the game (or who plays the most), Pittsburgh also has to find success through the air in order to pull out a win in this tough road match-up. With Mike Wallace (62 catches 1034 yards, 8 TDs) leading the way in the receiving game along with the speedy and elusive Antonio Brown (55 catches, 925 yards, 2 TDs) and sure-handed tight end Heath Miller (43 catches, 503 yards, 2 TDs), Pittsburgh will have an advantage in the passing game tonight whether it’s Rothlisberger or Batch taking snaps. I don’t see Rashard Mendenhall, who appears to have lost a few steps in his game this season, having any success on the ground against the league’s best defense behind a home crowd environment. As such the short passing game should be featured by Pittsburgh all night long, as they do match-up well against a 49er defensive squad that is allowing 234.5 yards through the air per game (19th in the league). But care must be taken by Pittsburgh to avoid handing a similarly opportunistic 49ers team (18 INTs on the year, 3rd in the NFL) the ball with ill-timed, ill-placed passes, which could be enhanced the more time Charlie Batch spends with the football tonight.
Betting Lines for Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers
Oddsmaker Sportsbook is our destination of choice amongst the best online sportsbooks reviewed here, and for the break down on the betting lines, we find the home team 49ers as a slight favorite at -155 odds on the money line, with the Steelers coming in as +135 underdogs. In a defense-first contest, the 3 points on the spread (-105 odds on San Francisco -3, -115 odds on the Steelers +3) will be a tough mark to chase at either way, although if Pittsburgh decides to sit Rothlisberger along with their staring center Maurkice Pouncey, the spread definitely favors the 49ers with home field advantage. Despite one of the lowest over/under betting lines of the year at 37.5 points, this game could very well stay underneath that margin, as San Francisco has struggled to score lately, and both teams have been extremely stingy with giving up points all year.
Our Pick to Win:
In a very well-balanced defensive match-up, points are going to be very hard to come by, but with San Francisco playing very well against the spread this year (10-2-1), and having a healthier defense for tonight’s game, we like the 49ers to squeeze out a win on home field as they’ve been very difficult to beat in front of a rowdy San Francisco crowd. While we don’t expect this game to be exciting on the scoring lines, the battle in the trenches should be enjoyable for football fans to watch, as the 49ers try to push the ball on the ground and Pittsburgh turns to the air, but ultimately neither team will likely have much success getting into the endzone. In a game that relies on field goals, ball possession and a few key turnovers, we’re counting on the 49ers barely getting by at home, beating the Steelers 20-16.