- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Tight end Vernon Davis sold the run block, disengaged from outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and broke into the clear for a touchdown catch so easy, he could have made it in the dark.
By then, city engineers had restored power to Candlestick Park, allowing all to see a performance complete enough to restore the San Francisco 49ers as worthy contenders in the NFC. Davis' 1-yard scoring reception, the first of two 49ers touchdowns in the red zone Monday night, carried them to a 20-3 victory over the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
"This one was big," Davis said, and he was right.
The 49ers improved to 11-3, remaining on course to claim the NFC's second seed and a first-round playoff bye. They beat an NFL power with a 10-3 record coming into the game, suppressing doubts that lingered following two recent defeats. They solved long-running problems in the red zone, scoring touchdowns twice in three chances. And they allowed zero sacks after taking 18 in their previous three games.
"It showed the world that we're serious and we can play big games on the national stage," Davis said.
Steelers fans are entitled to break out the asterisks. They can point to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's obvious limitations related to an ankle injury. They can point to James Harrison's suspension and Woodley's bum hamstring. They can even question some of the officiating calls that worked against Pittsburgh in this game.
None of that matters to the 49ers. For them, this game showed the path for San Francisco to keep pace with higher-scoring competitors in the NFC. The 49ers in their current state are never going to win games the way the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints typically win them. But if they can start turning field goals into touchdowns, as they did Monday night, their chances for beating championship-caliber teams in the playoffs will increase exponentially.
That is especially true against any pass-oriented teams venturing into Candlestick Park in mid-January, when the slick playing surface, shifting winds and potential precipitation can turn an already ornery 49ers defense into something even greater.
"Everybody has to take us seriously, man," defensive end Ray McDonald said. "We're not the old Niners any more."
The new Niners won this game against the Steelers their way, and without apologies. They dominated field position, holding a 21-yard advantage over Pittsburgh in average drive start. They forced four more turnovers, giving them a plus-25 differential, best in the NFL. They went a 15th consecutive game without allowing a rushing touchdown. They beat a playoff-caliber opponent by 17 points while gaining only 287 yards.
The 49ers out-Steelered the Steelers, and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin knew it.
"I think we need to acknowledge that was 49er football tonight," Tomlin said. "We played the game on their terms in a manner of which they play when they play winning football. They created turnovers, they got us with a few concept plays, they controlled the ball offensively."
The power outages threatened to disrupt both teams. But just as coach Jim Harbaugh embraced the lockout and the challenges it presented a first-year head coach, his team handled the disruptions without trouble. Harbaugh did not hesitate when asked what it was like in the locker room before the game.
"It was dark," he said, to thunderous laughter.
Harbaugh and staff had the right answers during the game, too. They found ways to free Davis for key receptions after Pittsburgh initially covered the Pro Bowl tight end effectively. They also came out ahead in five key areas discussed here heading into the game:
Pass protection. The 49ers had taken more sacks in their three defeats (20) than in their 10 victories (19). They countered the Steelers' pass-rush with quick passes to the perimeter. Their offensive line was on point with its assignments. Quarterback Alex Smith moved effectively, at one point scrambling for 14 yards. Pittsburgh sent five or more pass-rushers on 21 of 32 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and still the Steelers could not sack Smith.
Roethlisberger's mobility. The ankle injury limited Roethlisberger's scrambling ability, but the Steelers' quarterback had been much more effective throwing from the pocket this season (8.5 yards per attempt, compared to 5.8 outside the pocket). The Steelers predictably had Roethlisberger in the shotgun formation more frequently, hoping he could set up quickly and deliver the ball. But as the game wore on and San Francisco pulled ahead, the Steelers had no answer for Aldon Smith. The 49ers' rookie outside linebacker finished the game with 2.5 sacks and seven quarterback hits.
Mike Wallace's deep speed. The Steelers came close to connecting on a couple long passes that would have changed the game early. Roethlisberger did wind up with 330 yards, completing passes for 39 and 36 (twice) yards. Wallace averaged only 13.2 yards per reception, however. That was a manageable number for the 49ers.
Ted Ginn Jr. and special teams. Ginn, the 49ers' return specialist, did not return after suffering an ankle injury on the kickoff return opening the second half. Punter Andy Lee posted a 49.2-yard net average while pinning the Steelers inside their 20-yard line four times in six chances. One punt-and-penalty combination had Pittsburgh beginning at its own 16-yard line after the 49ers punted from their own 12. The Steelers' average drive start, the 15, was the worst for any team in the NFL this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Smith in the red zone. This area remains a work in progress for the 49ers. Two red zone touchdowns against the Steelers were positive steps, not a long-term solution. Continued progress in that area will be critical for the 49ers to beat the best teams. "If we can get aggressive in the red zone, we will be unstoppable," Davis said.
The 49ers are not there yet, but this was undeniably a step forward for them. They weren't afraid to say it, either. Afterward, Harbaugh promoted Smith for the Pro Bowl. Davis and teammates declared their legitimacy. They welcomed skeptics.
"We played good football tonight," Harbaugh said. "I'd really like to focus on that -- not the lights, not the locker room before the game, not the contingencies. ... I'm proud to be a part of that team."