AFC North: Steelers-49ers MNF

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 20, Steelers 3

December, 20, 2011
12/20/11
12:26
AM ET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Quick thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 20-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

What it means: The Steelers' offensive struggles cost Pittsburgh a prime opportunity to gain control of the division and the AFC's top seed, just like the Ravens did one night earlier on the West Coast. In order to win the division now, the Steelers (10-4) need the Ravens (10-4) to lose one of their remaining two games. Baltimore finishes out the regular season home against Cleveland and at Cincinnati. Pittsburgh was shut out in the first half for the second time this season and finished with a season-worst three points.

Not the same Roethlisberger: The high-ankle sprain hurt Ben Roethlisberger's accuracy and ability to throw deep. All three of his interceptions were on passes that traveled more than 10 yards. Roethlisberger then fumbled in the fourth quarter while getting sacked. The 49ers converted 13 points off those turnovers. Roethlisberger finished 25-of-44 (56.8 percent) for 330 yards. And since we're on the subject, why was Roethlisberger still in a 17-point game late in the fourth quarter?

Unexpected delays: The game was stopped twice because of power outages that caused Candlestick Park to go completely dark. Kickoff was pushed back 40 minutes, and the second quarter was held up by 10 minutes. The outages were caused by a transformer blowing outside the stadium, according to a 49ers spokesman.

Harrison factor: The absence of linebacker James Harrison, who was serving his one-game suspension, was felt in the lack of a pass rush. The Steelers failed to sack quarterback Alex Smith. Getting to Smith has been a key to beating San Francisco. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Smith has been sacked 20 times in three losses and only 19 times in 11 wins.

Bad cover-up: The game was broken open in the third quarter when the 49ers took advantage of the mismatch of the Steelers linebackers on San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis. There were completions of 31 yards (against James Farrior) and 21 yards (against Lawrence Timmons) to put the 49ers at the 1-yard line. Then, Davis was left wide open for a 1-yard touchdown as San Francisco extended its lead to 13-3.

What's next: The Steelers play their final home game of the regular season when they host the St. Louis Rams (2-12) on Saturday.

Halftime: Steelers' power outage

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
10:46
PM ET
SAN FRANCISCO -- In a game that has been delayed twice by power outages, the Pittsburgh Steelers haven't generated much themselves on the offensive side of the ball. That's why Pittsburgh trails the 49ers, 6-0, at halftime.

The Steelers were shut out in the first half for the second time this season and only the third time in four seasons. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was limited by his high-ankle sprain, completing 14 of 23 passes for 141 yards in the first two quarters. Unable to step into throws, he completed one pass for more than 10 yards and was intercepted twice on long throws.

Pittsburgh's biggest mistake occurred in the final minute of the first half. After a 7-yard completion to Mewelde Moore, the Steelers allowed 19 seconds to tick off the clock before running another play with 11 seconds remaining. Pittsburgh could have stopped the clock because it had one timeout left.

The half ended with a 24-yard pass to Antonio Brown as time expired.

Some other thoughts at halftime:
  • The Steelers' defense has allowed only one touchdown in its past 15 quarters. Pittsburgh has limited the 49ers to 153 first-half yards. After Roethlisberger's first interception, the Steelers kept the 49ers out of the end zone after six plays run in the red zone.
  • Rashard Mendenhall hasn't had much success against the NFL's top-ranked run defense. He has 30 yards on nine carries. His longest run has been eight yards.
  • Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who is serving his one-game suspension, tweeted this during the one power outage: "If I cant play then can't nobody play... Lights out!"

Second power outage at Candlestick

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
9:52
PM ET
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Steelers-49ers game was delayed a second time because of a power outage.

Kickoff was pushed back 20 minutes because a transformer blew outside the stadium. Then, with 12:13 left in the second quarter (and the 49ers winning 6-0), the lights at Candlestick Park went out again.

The game has now resumed after a 10-minute delay.

As long as the pressbox continues to have power, I will keep providing updates.

Power has been restored

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
8:49
PM ET
SAN FRANCISCO -- The power has been restored at Candlestick Park, and the players are warming up on the field again.

The kickoff of the Steelers-49ers game was delayed after a transformer blew outside the stadium, a 49ers spokesman said. The players will continue to warm up for another five minutes, and then there will be the National Anthem, the coin toss and the kickoff.

Kickoff had been scheduled for 8:40 p.m.

Candlestick Park has gone dark

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
8:29
PM ET
SAN FRANCISCO -- About 10 minutes before the Steelers-49ers game, the power at Candlestick Park went out and caused the entire place to go dark.

A transformer blew outside the stadium, according to a 49ers spokesman. The situation is being handled by city engineers. The problem is expected to be fixed in five to 10 minutes, the spokesman added.

When the lights went out, none of the players were out on the field. It happened shortly after warm-ups.

Steelers-49ers inactives

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
7:26
PM ET
Here are the inactives for the Steelers-49ers game:

STEELERS: CB Curtis Brown, C Maurkice Pouncey, LB Chris Carter, DE Al Woods, OT Jamon Meredith, WR Emmanuel Sanders and LB James Harrison (suspended).

Doug Legursky starts at center for Pouncey, which means Chris Kemoeatu will start at left guard. Jason Worilds starts in place of Harrison, who is serving his one-game suspension. All three of the Steelers quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon) are active.

49ers: LB Patrick Willis, WR Braylon Edwards, CB Tramaine Brock, FB Moran Norris, G Mike Person, NT Ian Williams and QB Scott Tolzien.

Larry Grant fills in for Willis at MLB, and Ted Ginn Jr. starts at wide receiver for Edwards.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will start tonight against the 49ers despite moving gingerly during warmups.

Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger is wearing a protective brace on his left leg to stabilize his high-ankle sprain. He injured his left ankle 11 days ago against Cleveland and was considered a game-time decision after being limited in practice Friday and Saturday.

This is an important game for the Steelers, who would take control of the AFC North and gain an inside track for the AFC's top seed with a victory.

San Francisco has recorded 32 sacks in 13 games this season, which ranks in the middle of the NFL. If Roethlisberger can't finish the game, Charlie Batch would replace him.

The biggest challenge for Roethlisberger is throwing deep because he can't follow through on his passes (he can't put all of his weight on his left leg). But the Steelers don't need to throw the ball deep to generate big plays in the passing game. Wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown have the speed and elusiveness to take short passes and turn them into big gains.
SAN FRANCISCO — In order for the Ravens to regain control of the AFC North again, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh needs some help from his brother.

Jim Harbaugh, who coaches the 49ers, plays the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) tonight. If the Steelers win, they take a one game lead over the Ravens in the division race with two weeks remaining. If they lose, the Ravens (10-4) regain control of the division because they swept Pittsburgh earlier this season.

"It’s going to be interesting to see what happens," John Harbaugh told reporters today. "We have no control over it. We’ll be watching it. So, we’ll just have to see how that goes.”

Monday Night Live: Steelers-49ers

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
6:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the "Monday Night Football" match up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET. See you there.


SAN FRANCISCO — Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a game-time decision for Monday's game against the 49ers, a source told ESPN.

Whether Roethlisberger plays will determine the type of offense the Steelers put on the field. Even with an injured Roethlisberger, the Steelers will be a more pass-oriented team. Without him, Pittsburgh will be a run-first offense.

When Roethlisberger was suspended for four games at the start of the 2010 season, running back Rashard Mendenhall had more carries than the Steelers had pass attempts in three of those four weeks. He averaged 102.7 yards rushing during that time.

Roethlisberger has carried the offense this season, throwing at least 30 passes in 10 of 13 games. He's continued to throw a high number of passes even though he has battled a foot injury and a fractured right thumb.

After Roethlisberger sustained a high-ankle sprain 11 days ago, he completed eight of 12 passes for 178 yards, but he had trouble throwing deep because he couldn't put all of his weight on that left leg.

If he plays, Roethlisberger will wear a brace to stabilize his ankle.
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Steelers couldn't have written a better script for themselves leading up to Monday night's game at the 49ers. After nearly everything went Pittsburgh's way Sunday, the Steelers can take hold of the AFC North and the AFC's top seed with a win over San Francisco.

The Ravens' loss at San Diego puts the Steelers in control of the division because Baltimore fell a half-game back of Pittsburgh. If the Steelers (10-3) win out, they would capture the AFC North for the fourth time in five years (and it wouldn't matter that the Ravens swept them or went undefeated in the division).

The Texans' loss to Carolina gives the Steelers the inside track for the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If the Steelers win out, the only other team that can finish with a 13-3 record is the New England Patriots. And Pittsburgh would win the tiebreaker for the top seed because it beat the Patriots earlier this season.

The Steelers' game at the NFC West champion 49ers (10-3) is the most challenging one left on their schedule. Pittsburgh finishes up the regular season against two last-place teams: home against St. Louis (2-12) and at Cleveland (4-10)

All indications point to Ben Roethlisberger starting for the Steelers on Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers despite being limited with a high ankle sprain.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin told ESPN that he's "optimistic" that Roethlisberger will play. A source told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Roethlisberger is "good enough to go" after Saturday's practice.

So, the next question becomes: What type of game should everyone expect out of Roethlisberger?

The biggest challenge for Roethlisberger will be making deep throws, according to ESPN medical expert Stephania Bell. The soreness in the injured left ankle will make it difficult for him to step into his passes.

"One need look no further than St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford's struggles in last Monday night's game to see how this injury can compromise a signal-caller," Bell wrote.

Bell, though, acknowledged that Roethlisberger has proven that he isn't like a lot of athletes when it comes to playing with injuries.

"He has shown time and again that not only can he play in the presence of injury but he can be effective even when he looks to be moving slowly and awkwardly," she wrote. "He has played through a broken bone in his foot, a broken thumb, and more."

If Roethlisberger can't play, Charlie Batch is expected to replace him at quarterback.

Steelers clinch playoff berth

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
4:56
PM ET
The Pittsburgh Steelers don't play until Monday night, but they've already secured themselves a playoff berth.

The Steelers (10-3) became the first AFC North team to earn a spot in the postseason as a result of the Tennessee Titans losing to the previously winless Indianapolis Colts. Of course, Pittsburgh is still battling the Ravens for the AFC North title. The Steelers, who are currently tied with Baltimore, need to finish one game ahead of the Ravens because they were swept by their division rivals this season.

The Ravens still need some help to secure a playoff berth before playing at San Diego tonight. Baltimore can clinch a playoff spot for the fourth straight season if the Jets or Raiders lose. The Ravens can also get a postseason berth if they beat the Chargers.
Antonio BrownGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesSecond-year receiver Antonio Brown has become the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 1 playmaker on offense.
After he had made a game-breaking play against the Bengals, the Steelers' Antonio Brown was talking to a swarm of reporters until quarterback Ben Roethlisberger asked to speak to the wide receiver off to the side.

Brown came back to his locker with a big grin on his face. So, what did Roethlisberger whisper to him?

"I can't reveal our secrets," Brown said coyly.

Well, there's one secret that can't be kept any longer: Brown is the top playmaker on the Steelers.

He first bypassed Hines Ward on the depth chart. He then climbed past Mike Wallace as the go-to target. Not bad for a sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan.

In a matter of a months, Brown went from the Steelers' promising No. 3 wide receiver to the popular No. 1 target when Pittsburgh needs to finish off a team.

It happened two weeks ago against Cincinnati when Brown returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown to answer a Bengals touchdown and essentially put the game away before halftime. It happened again last week against Cleveland when Brown took a short pass and turned it into a 79-yard touchdown to close out the game with 2:52 remaining.

The Steelers might need to rely on Brown even more Monday night at San Francisco if Roethlisberger can't play on his injured ankle.

"He is improving in all areas -- in route-running, coverage recognition, being quarterback-friendly and just an overall understanding of the game and how he fits in the big picture," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Brown. "That's what we expect of all second-year men, to grow by leaps and bounds in all areas, and he has done that to this point."

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Antonio Brown
Charles LeClaire/USPRESSWIREAntonio Brown's 79-yard touchdown against Cleveland sealed a Steelers victory.
Brown, the 195th player taken in the 2010 draft, has improved "by leaps and bounds" in this season alone.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brown averaged 43.7 yards receiving with no touchdowns and no 100-yard performances in his first nine games this season. In the past four games, however, he has averaged 94.7 yards receiving with two touchdowns and had three 100-yard games.

An argument could be made that wide receiver Mike Wallace remains the Steelers' most dangerous threat because of his speed. But Brown has been the team's most consistent threat based on his production.

"[The Steelers] have a guy No. 84 in Antonio Brown who is better than 17 [Wallace] in all aspects of the game," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said last month.

Brown flashed his potential last season when he beat Webb for a 58-yard catch, the critical late play in the Steelers' divisional playoff win over the Ravens. He's just taken it to the next level this year.

"I always knew I was capable," Brown told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "It's a league of opportunities, and that's all it's about."

The real "secret" to Brown's success has been his bond with Roethlisberger. Brown leads the Steelers in passes thrown his way with 97, which is eight more than Wallace. He also ranks second in the AFC with 23 third-down receptions, which shows that Roethlisberger looks to him in pressure situations.

These numbers aren't being produced by talent alone. It's the result of hard work and long talks.

"If you watch us during practice, he's constantly by my side," Roethlisberger said. "He's just always right there, and it's good because he's coming to me asking 'OK, Ben on this play do you want me to do this, do you want me to do this?' And I think that's awesome because I know where he's going to be, and that's one of the biggest reasons why I think we've been so successful on third down."

Brown's biggest strength is his versatility. He can beat a team as a wide receiver or as a returner. He can beat a cornerback deep or show off his elusiveness by grabbing a short toss, spinning around a defender with a fake and racing untouched to the end zone.

"When you get single coverage and a guy that's as talented as he is, with body control, with his hands, he's got the speed to run deep," Roethlisberger said. "He just has a lot of tools [and] he puts in the extra work."

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