Steelers may be helped by following Ravens

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
8:18
AM ET
ESPN Stats & Information
Who has the edge when the 49ers have the ball? Click on "Analyze" to take a closer look.
The 10-3 San Francisco 49ers host the 10-3 Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football in a matchup of gritty, physical teams. The Baltimore Ravens, similarly defensively in many ways to the Steelers, sacked Alex Smith nine times on Thanksgiving night.

What will the 49ers have to do to prevent that from occurring again? Let’s break it down.

Disrupting the 49ers offense begins by pressuring Alex Smith, who has been sacked a league-high 39 times this season.

Smith has struggled particularly against added pass pressure, as he is sacked approximately once every eight dropbacks when facing at least five pass rushers, the highest rate in the league.

Opposing defenses have also had success getting after Smith with smaller personnel on the field, as he has been sacked once every 8.4 dropbacks when defenses have at least five defensive backs on the field (again, the highest rate in the league).

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who will be without linebacker James Harrison due to his one-game suspension, can look no further than their divisional foe, the Baltimore Ravens, for a game plan to disrupt Smith and overpower the 49ers offensive line.

On Thanksgiving, the Ravens sent five or more rushers against Smith on 40 percent of his dropbacks, resulting in five of their nine sacks.

The Ravens also used small personnel against San Francisco effectively, sacking Smith eight times with at least five defensive backs on the field.

Although Pittsburgh has a tendency to stay in its base 3-4 more often than substituting to its small personnel, the defense has been effective.

Not only does the extra linebacker protect against the run (pivotal against the 49ers), but the Steelers have a plus-1 interception-touchdown differential in their base 3-4 defense (five touchdowns, six interceptions) compared to a minus-2 differential (six touchdowns, four interceptions) in their sub-small packages.

In fact, their 3-4 defense leads all NFL base formations in yards per pass attempt (6.0, a half-yard ahead of the Houston Texans and Detroit Lions) and ranks third in opposing completion percentage (53.9 percent).

However, the Steelers may execute a similar game plan to that of the Ravens’ due to their similarities on defense, and after observing the success Baltimore had in Week 12.

Both the Ravens and Steelers are anchored by their linebacking corps (Steelers, Ravens and Texans are all tied for second in the league in sacks by linebackers at 23.5) and share similar defensive blitzing styles.

Each team sends five or more rushers at a top ten rate in the league, and the Steelers (5.2) trail only the Lions (4.4) in yards per attempt when sending added pressure.

If the 49ers try to keep the ball out of Smith’s hands they will face tough maneuvering on the ground. Since the start of Week 7, the Steelers are allowing only 3.37 yards per rush between the tackles, third-best in the NFL.

Over that same span, the 49ers running attack has yielded only 3.9 yards per rush between the tackles, ranked 22nd in the league.

The Steelers hope their defense can dictate the game’s tempo, because the 49ers own the statistical advantage on the other side of the ball.

The 49ers rushing defense continues to be the stingiest in the league, ranking first in yards allowed (917), yards per rush (3.23) and first downs allowed (40), without allowing a rushing touchdown all season.

The defense especially excels at making tackles, limiting opposing rushers to a league-leading 1.37 yards after contact per rush (the Patriots are the next closest, allowing 1.59).

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