Monday's contest between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers marked a bizarre role reversal for the two historic franchises. In its salad days under Montana and Rice, San Francisco was the original "finesse" team, spreading out opposing defenses and chucking the ball all over the lot with timing routes. By contrast, the best Steelers squads were characterized by violent, smothering defenses and a proclivity to play "hide the quarterback" with Terry Bradshaw (easily one of the most overrated signal callers in NFL history) by running on first down, and second, and third …
Pittsburgh's defense is still a solid unit, don't get me wrong, but the Steelers offense has shifted over the past few seasons to maximize their return on investment on perhaps the league's deepest group of electric wide receivers. Unfortunately, this offensive attack was no match for San Francisco, who in 2011 are basically the Steelers Nouveau.
Add to this role reversal the absence of some of each team's best players (Maurkice Pouncey, James Harrison, Patrick Willis) and a couple of power outages (Chris Berman's thoroughly lame pun on "Candlestick Park" was abhorrent, as is everything that man says), and Monday had the makings of a truly bizarre contest.
At least that's what it seemed like we were in for. Instead what we got was perhaps the simplest kind of NFL game to wrap your head around: an old-fashioned beatdown, where one team severely outperforms another in every phase of the game.
It all starts with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, of course, and he was truly ineffective on the national stage. On his first of many interceptions, Roethlisberger completely stared down his receiver, Mike Wallace, who was never open on the play, and San Francisco safety Dashon Goldson came up from two-deep coverage to make an easy pick.
Later in the quarter, Roethlisberger made an even more egregious decision. San Francisco only rushed three; meanwhile the most obnoxious woman in the world, who happened to be sitting directly behind me at this Pittsburgh sports bar, screeched, "OH MY GOD, BEN, THROW IT!!!!" (Other gems from this insufferable moron included "OH MY GOD, WHY ARE WE RUNNING IT!?" anytime Rashard Mendenhall touched ball and "OKAY, TIME TO BUST OUT THE TRICK PLAYS!!!" once Pittsburgh was trailing, 13-3.) Unfortunately, Roethlisberger seemed to share this premature, completely misplaced sense of panic. Despite oodles of time, he chucked the ball into zone coverage when he could've just checked down Mendenhall, who was just chilling in the flats, for an easy completion.
Roethlisberger went on to throw a third interception and lose a fumble, so it wasn't his finest performance, to say the least. There's really no blaming this on his injury, either. The issue wasn't his footwork or his mobility, although those surely suffered. It was his horrid decision-making.
And you have to give San Francisco a ton of credit, too. For staying opportunistic and making Roethlisberger pay for his (many) mistakes, yes, but also for their comparatively pristine quarterback play. Alex Smith put the ball in the air more than 30 times for only the fifth time this season. These frequently came off of play action bootlegs—like his exquisite one-yard TD toss (video) to tight end Vernon Davis, which even faked out the camera guy—or quick timing patterns, particularly out routes. You can see the conservative nature of the Niners' passing attack in Smith's modest 6.0 YPA, but make no mistake - this is a coaching staff who knows how to accentuate the strengths and minimize the limitations of their quarterback. They grasp that although Smith's deep-ball accuracy is dubious, he can have success when it comes to short and moderate throws, particularly if you can get him moving out of the pocket. (Credit the man's offensive line for keeping his jersey clean, too; with James Harrison on the shelf, Pittsburgh failed to record a single sack in the contest.)
And of course it helps that Aldon Smith, the 49ers' rookie linebacker, is an absolute terror. His combination of speed and power is reminiscent of a young DeMarcus Ware. Left tackle Max Starks was totally overmatched against Smith, who was able to bull-rush Starks all night en route to 2.5 sacks on the evening, giving him 13 on the year. (That's just shy of the rookie record, set by Javon Kearse way back when.) Consider Smith and Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller in a two-horse race for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Another star of the show for San Francisco was their punter, Andy Lee. Yeah, I said it. The punter. When the Niners' offense wasn't hanging points on Pittsburgh's defense, Lee was booming balls downfield, making it tough sledding for Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense. Following six Lee punts, Pittsburgh's average starting field position was their own 11-yard line, which is just absurd. San Francisco won the turnover battle, obviously, but they also dominated when it came to field position, too.
With the Baltimore Ravens dropping a game to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, Monday Night Football was the perfect opportunity for the Steelers to seize control not only of their division, but of the entire AFC. Obviously, that didn't happen, so barring a collapse by the Ravens in the final two weeks (certainly not out of the question), Pittsburgh seems destined for a Wild Card spot.