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Thursday, December 15, 2011
Scout's take: 49ers vs. Steelers on MNF

By Mike Sando

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. offered thoughts Thursday heading into the San Francisco 49ers' game Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick Park.

Mike Sando: This game against the Steelers provides the 49ers with an opportunity to defeat a quality opponent on a national stage, while keeping control of the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race. My sense is that the 49ers, though still a good team, have plateaued a little bit lately.

Matt Williamson: I think that is a good word. They might have hit their head on the ceiling. The talent has taken them as far as it will. That does not mean they cannot win playoff games. But this is a bad matchup for them against the Steelers. The 49ers lost to Arizona and the Cardinals are running the Steelers' defense. They've gotten better at it, but that defense has been clicking for the Steelers for years. They know what they are doing and they are going to give San Francisco's offense a hard time.

Mike Sando: The 49ers have taken 18 sacks over their past three games after allowing seven in their previous six. They aren't getting Frank Gore going as well on the ground, and Gore is banged up.

Matt Williamson: Their young offensive line does not pick up blitzes very well. They get beat one-on-one, especially on the right side. Ike Taylor can do a good job against Michael Crabtree. Troy Polamalu and the Steelers do well against tight ends. I just do not know where the 49ers' offense is going to come from. Alex Smith is not a guy who, when everything is going wrong, puts the team on his back.

Mike Sando: Several key players could miss this game for both teams -- Joe Staley and Patrick Willis for the 49ers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley for the Steelers. And then Ben Roethlisberger's ankle is an issue.

Matt Williamson: Roethlisberger will have had 10 days to rest. Everyone in the world knows he is going to play. Charlie Batch is not good.

If Harrison doesn't play and Ben doesn't play, I'll take the 49ers. But if Ben is out there at even 50 percent, I am taking Pittsburgh. The matchup is not good for the 49ers.

Mike Sando: The 49ers are strong on defense. What makes you think the Steelers' offense would be OK without Roethlisberger near full strength?

Matt Williamson: If you are the Steelers and Ben is not moving well, put him in the shotgun, go three wide receivers all day with a back in the backfield and get it out quick. Don't even have him dropping back. Get the ball out quick to Antonio Brown especially, and Hines Ward. Do the quick three-step passing game out of the shotgun.

Mike Sando: Back to the 49ers' offense. One thing they've struggled with some is yards after the catch. They led the NFL at 6.8 yards after the catch per reception last season. That has fallen to 5.2 this season. And the Steelers' defense leads the NFL in fewest yards allowed after the catch on average at 4.3, an astounding 1.7 yards better than the next-best team, Houston.

Matt Williamson: I don't see a real good after-the-catch wide receiver in the group for San Francisco. Ted Ginn would catch only bombs. Michael Crabtree is not nifty. He is a slower, power guy. Vernon Davis can be, but his role has been diminished heavily and I'm not sure how well he grasps the offense, and they need him to help the tackles. I'm not sure who would be the guy, unless they dropped more passes off to Gore and Kendall Hunter.

Mike Sando: The 49ers have dramatically cut Gore's role as a receiver. That's one reason their team yards after the reception has fallen. Then there is the red zone. San Francisco ranks last in touchdown percentage there.

Matt Williamson: Every weakness is exaggerated in the red zone for a quarterback. There are a lot more bodies in a smaller space, a lot more molecules bouncing off the walls. You have to be a little more accurate, a little better anticipation. Donovan McNabb was not that great in the red zone. He was not an anticipatory thrower or very accurate. Smith has some of those qualities, too, but less. He is not as talented. But I know he's done well in the red zone before. One thing that comes to mind is a lack of involvement from Vernon Davis.

Mike Sando: Davis finished last season with eight catches for 50 yards and four touchdowns in the red zone. He has four catches for 48 yards and three scores there this season. Delanie Walker had five catches for 22 yards and no scores in the red zone in 2010. He has one catch for a 6-yard touchdown against Detroit in the red zone this season. But Smith's completion percentage has fallen from above 70 to around 40 in the red zone since last season. Sacks are up. Gore's carries in the red zone are up. His receptions are down. I'm not sure what is wrong down there, but improved efficiency in that area would certainly help Monday night.

Williamson and I will be among those participating in an in-game chat Monday night. I'll be at the game. Williamson will monitor remotely. Jamison Hensley from the AFC North blog will join us on the chat from Candlestick Park.