Tag:Antonio Brown
Posted on: February 29, 2012 5:38 pm
Edited on: February 29, 2012 8:06 pm
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Steelers set to release WR Hines Ward

Hines Ward was Super Bowl XL MVP and the face of the Steelers  for more than a decade. (Getty Images)

By Ryan Wilson

After 14 seasons, 1,000 receptions and 85 touchdowns, Hines Ward's tenure in Pittsburgh is all but over. It was once a matter of if, now it's when, and team president Art Rooney II provided those details Wednesday.

“We had a conversation today with Hines Ward and informed him that we plan to release him of his contract prior to the start of the 2012 NFL calendar year,” Rooney told the team’s website.

“Hines has been an integral part of our success since we drafted him in 1998 and we will forever be grateful for what he has helped us achieve. He has meant so much to this organization, both on and off the field, and we appreciate his efforts over the past 14 years. Hines’ accomplishments are numerous, and he will always be thought of as one of the all-time great Steelers. We wish him nothing but the best.”

Ward released a statement of his own (via NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano):

"This isn't how I wanted this chapter of my career to end. I did everything in my power to remain a Steeler and finish what I started here 14 years ago," he said. "I want to thank the organization, my teammates and coaches and everyone who made my run as a Steeler the best years of my life. To Mr. Rooney, thank you for allowing me to play for one of the greatest organizations in the world. To my fans and in particular, Steeler Nation, thank you for your support and all the great memories. I gave my heart and soul for you every down and I will always bleed black and gold. I do feel that I still have more football left in me and I am looking forward to playing in the NFL, again, this upcoming season."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac tweeted Wednesday that the organization felt that Ward had nothing left.

gerrydulac
Decision to release 86 was not about money. He could've offered to play for free and wouldn't matter. Coaches feel he can't play anymore.
2/29/12 7:12 PM

gerrydulac
Ward would have been Sunday inactive if Steelers kept him. They didn't want him taking a roster spot at expense of developing young player.
2/29/12 7:14 PM

The 2011 season was Ward's worst since his rookie campaign; he lost his starting job to second-year standout Antonio Brown and managed just 46 catches for 381 yards (and a career-worst 8.3 YPC average), and two touchdowns. Part of Ward's decline can be blamed on age (he's 35), but he also suffered a severely sprained ankle in Week 4's loss to the Texans.

Whatever the explanation, the Steelers are ready to move on without him, which means that the 2012 offense will feature quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing to Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace -- assuming the team extends his contract (he won't be franchised, at least to hear general manager Kevin Colbert at last week's combine). The three wideouts, none older than 25, constitute one of the league's most dynamic receiver corps, which should make new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's job a lot easier.

Ward, meanwhile, thinks he has a few years left. It just won't be in Pittsburgh -- unless the team re-signs him later this the summer, perhaps an option given that there are currently three wide receivers on the roster. More likely: the Steelers make a run at Jerricho Cotchery, who they signed to a one-year deal before the 2011 season to be the No. 5 wideout. By December, he had also surpassed Ward on the depth chart and proved to be a capable underneath target and a willing blocker.

While the Steelers continue their free agency and draft preparations, and Ward contemplates his NFL future, the conversation will inevitably turn to the latter's Hall of Fame credentials. In our minds, he's a lock. Then again, we don't have a vote.

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Posted on: February 23, 2012 12:36 pm
 

Steelers want Wallace 'to finish his career here'

Pittsburgh would love to keep top wideout Wallace. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

INDIANAPOLIS -- Kevin Colbert, as GM of the Steelers, is in a precarious position. Pittsburgh has little-to-no cap room and one of their top offensive players, wide receiver Mike Wallace, is a restricted free agent who's been viewed as a candidate for offer sheets from various AFC rivals.

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Colbert emphasized on Thursday at the NFL combine that the Steelers, despite rumors to the contrary, are still very much open to using the franchise tag on Wallace, even though it would tack on another $9.4 million to their salary cap.

"We won't know until we know what we're dealing with as far as cap space. So we have to leave that option open, absolutely," Colbert said. "The thing I can say for sure about Mike is that we want Mike to finish his career with the Steelers and we're confident that Mike wants to finish his career here and play with a great quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger and have the receivers we have to compliment him.

"We think he's only scratched the surface in what he can do. There's a lot left there that still can be developed and we're anxious to see it happen as a Steeler."

The Steelers are being hurt by changes to restricted free agent (RFA) rules in the new CBA; teams only have to surrender a first-round pick in exchange for Wallace if the Steelers decline to match any offer from someone else.

"The compensation is what it is," Colbert said. "We have to live within the rules and make the best decisions we can."

Cap space is the bigger issue, though. Even if the Steelers can get under the cap through cutting players and restructuring contracts, they'd still need to wiggle out another $10 million in order to easily bring Wallace back in 2012.

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Posted on: February 22, 2012 7:56 pm
Edited on: February 22, 2012 7:57 pm
 

Mike Wallace understands that NFL 'is a business'

It's not ideal, but the Steelers can survive in a Wallace-less offense. (US PRESSWIRE)

By Ryan Wilson

If, in 12 days, the Steelers haven't extended wide receiver Mike Wallace's contract, there's the real possibility that he may have played his last game for Pittsburgh. The organization will tender Wallace, a restricted free agent, the highest offer but teams looking for proven deep threats might willingly give up a first-round pick for his rights.

Exacerbating matters: the Steelers are some $7 million over the salary cap and likely wouldn't be able to match any contract another team might offer Wallace. Pittsburgh understands this and so does the third-year wide receiver.

"(Pittsburgh is) where I would like to be, but we all know that it is a business and you have certain things you have to handle," Wallace said during an appearance on SiriusXM Wednesday afternoon (via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review). "So if I have to go elsewhere, you know Pittsburgh will always be in my heart, but I have to do what I have to do. ...

"Yeah, we are talking, but I don`t know how far they are going to get right now because of the situation," he said, referring to the team's cap situation. "I know that they are working hard trying to take care of it, but I don`t know. We`ll see."

(We talked about Wallace's future -- among other things -- on the most recent Pick-6 Podcast.)


We wrote Monday about the doomsday scenario that has the Steelers losing Wallace and, well, it's not the end of the world some fans and media portray it to be. (We'll include part of it below since we buried it in a post about Big Ben and Haley, western Pennsylvania's newest BFFs.)

Wallace has put up some mind-blowing numbers during his three-year career, and you can even blame his second-half-of-2011 slump on Roethlisberger's health and defenses double- and triple-teaming him. But Pittsburgh also has Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. We think Brown will eventually be better than Wallace, if he's not already. And Sanders has the ability to become a solid No. 2 option.

The Steelers would also have an additional first-rounder, most likely near the bottom of the round. If, in their draft evaluations, they find a handful of players that they think would help them immediately (and when we say "players," we really mean "offensive linemen"), perhaps it's a tradeoff worth considering. Wallace is worth more than a late first-round selection but there are extenuating circumstances, chiefly the salary-cap purgatory the organization currently finds itself.

In addition to Brown and Sanders, Pittsburgh would need to re-sign someone like Jerricho Cotchery, or hope that Hines Ward has anything left for another season. (Worth mentioning: Ward had a severely sprained ankle early in the season and that may have hampered his production down the stretch.)

Then there is tight end Heath Miller, recently underutilized because of Pittsburgh's suspect pass-blocking. Haley announced at his introductory press conference that he was a huge Miller fan, and Miller could become another downfield option in the Steelers' passing game should they lose Wallace.

Finally, Pittsburgh has been to three Super Bowls since 2005, winning two. The group of pass catchers in 2005 included Ward, Cedrick Wilson and Antwaan Randle El. In 2009, it was Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Nate Washington. The takeaway: given the Steelers' financial predicament, keeping Wallace is more a luxury than a necessity.

The organization has less two weeks to sort this out. Whether that's enough time to get under the cap and extend Wallace is an entirely different issue. But Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has an impressive track record not only when it comes to identifying talent but knowing when to let them walk. We'll know shortly where Colbert stands on Wallace.

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Posted on: February 21, 2012 6:58 pm
 

Report: Roethlisberger, Haley finally meet

Now that Big Ben and Haley are BFFs, the team has to decide Wallace's future in Pittsburgh. (Getty Images/US PRESSWIRE)

By Ryan Wilson

Some sad news for those fans and media looking for a story where there wasn't one: after a couple weeks on the job, new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally had a face-to-face with franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette tweeted the details late Tuesday afternoon:

EdBouchette
News many have waited for: Ben & Steelers new OC Todd Haley finally met, sat down and talked.
2/21/12 5:46 PM

So what does this mean? Not much, really. Haley's arrival in Pittsburgh furrowed some brows but team president Art Rooney II said last week that the hire was soley that of head coach Mike Tomlin. Put differently: Rooney hadn't suddenly morphed into a meddlesome owner, ordering Haley's hire, even if Rooney wasn't jazzed by the prospects of Bruce Arians, Haley's predecessor, keeping his job.

There's still the issue if Haley and Big Ben can co-exist. Roethlisberger has stated previously that he's not a huge fan of yelling, we still think it won't affect his on-field performance. In fact, CBSSports.com's Will Brinson thinks the Steelers' Pro Bowl quarterback could have his best season yet in 2012. (We talked about it on the most recent Pick-6 Podcast.)


So now, with that all behind us, the second-biggest offseason storyline facing the Steelers is Mike Wallace's immediate future with the team.

CBSSports.com's Pat Kirwan wrote about it over the weekend: Pittsburgh is well over the cap and even if they wanted to franchise Wallace (they don't), their precarious salary-cap situation won't allow it. Which means that Wallace, a restricted free agent and one of the league's best young wide receivers, could be had by a wideout-needy team for a first-round pick should the Steelers choose not to match any contract offer Wallace would receive.

Before last summer's new CBA, restricted free agents tendered at the highest level would bring a first- and third-rounder should they sign elsewhere. Now it's only a first-rounder, which means that the Patriots, a club desperate for a deep threat that also has two first-round picks, would be a logical landing spot.

Ideally, the Steelers would find a way to keep Wallace, but that will require some nifty salary-cap maneuvering in the coming weeks; free agency starts March 5. But here's the other side of that argument should they lose him:

Wallace has put up some mind-blowing numbers during his three-year career, and you can even blame his second-half-of-2011 slump on Roethlisberger's health and defenses double- and triple-teaming him. But Pittsburgh also has Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. In our opinion, Brown will be better than Wallace, if he's not already. And Sanders has the ability to become a solid No. 2 option.

The Steelers would also have an additional first-rounder, most likely near the bottom of the round. If, in their draft evaluations, they find a handful of players that they think would help them immediately (and when we say "players," we really mean "offensive linemen"), perhaps it's a tradeoff worth considering. Wallace is worth more than a late first-round selection but there are extenuating circumstances, chiefly the salary-cap purgatory the organization currently finds itself.

In addition to Brown and Sanders, Pittsburgh would need to re-sign someone like Jerricho Cotchery, or hope that Hines Ward has anything left for another season. (Worth mentioning: Ward had a severely sprained ankle early in the season and that may have hampered his production down the stretch.)

Then there is tight end Heath Miller, recently underutilized because of Pittsburgh's suspect pass-blocking. Haley announced at his introductory press conference that he was a huge Miller fan, and Miller could become another downfield option in the Steelers' passing game should they lose Wallace.

The organization has nearly two weeks to sort this out. Whether that's enough time to get under the salary cap (they're currently about $7-$8 million over) and extend Wallace is an entirely different issue. But Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has an impressive track record not only when it comes to identifying talent but knowing when to let them walk. We'll know shortly where Colbert stands on Wallace.

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Posted on: February 11, 2012 10:33 am
Edited on: February 11, 2012 8:22 pm
 

Report: Ward won't return to Steelers in 2012

Ward

By Josh Katzowitz

UPDATED 8:21 p.m. ET: According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Steelers sources are saying that no decision has been made regarding Hines Ward and his future.

----------

We already knew big changes were coming to the Steelers, whether Ben Roethlisberger wants it or not. Former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is out; former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley is in as the man who will run Pittsburgh’s offense. And we wonder how much power Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin really has.

Now, it seems like a distinct possibility that one of the organization’s all-time great receivers won’t return for 2012.

That’s according to NFL.com’s Jason La Canfora, who said Friday that with all the contract and salary cap maneuvering the front office is doing, Ward’s $4 million salary and declining productivity might be too much bear and that he won't be back in Pittsburgh next season.

Already, Ward has said he will not retire and that he’d be willing to take a paycut with the Steelers because he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh's offensive upheaval
"I'd probably have to restructure my contract," Ward said last month. "That's fine with me. I recognize that. I'm telling you I want to be here, I'm telling you I'm willing to do that. And I understand the ramifications -- we have the cap number and stuff, but I want to be here."

Even with his reduced role in the Steelers offense -- Ward lost his starting position to Antonio Brown -- the team means so much to him that he’s willing to return for less money and less playing time.

"I'm just looking year to year, but I do want to play next year,” Ward said. “If they decide to part ways, I'll be devastated, but life's not over. I'm still young.

"My thing is, I want to be a Steeler, I'm here, I'm willing to restructure, do whatever. I don't want to be seen in another uniform but, if they decide to part ways, or whatever, I don't know, I'm not even thinking like that. I couldn't even fathom myself [in another uniform], but I still want to play football.”

Look for something to happen with Ward soon. If he’s still on the Steelers roster on March 1, he’s guaranteed to earn his 2012 salary. It’s seeming more likely, though, that if Ward wants to continue his illustrious career, he’ll have to do so somewhere other than Pittsburgh.

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Posted on: February 10, 2012 3:21 pm
 

Ben's heard 'good and bad things' about Haley

Ben doesn't sound thrilled about Haley coming to Pittsburgh. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

On Friday's Pick-Six Podcast, we talked in-depth about the Steelers hiring Todd Haley as their offensive coordinator. I think it's a great move; Wilson hates it. And he's not the only one, either. Ben Roethlisberger doesn't sound too thrilled.

In an interview with Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Roethlisberger said he's heard things, "both good and bad" about Haley from various people around the league.

"I've gotten a lot of calls and texts and emails from people around the league, both good and bad about him," Roethlisberger said. "Everybody has an opinion, as we all know, and they're letting me know what their interaction with him was -- good, bad and indifferent. I've heard a lot of things and I'm looking forward to meeting him and forming my own opinion."


Thus far, Roethlisberger's made no bones about his unhappiness with the Steelers "retiring" Bruce Arians. Typically when you see a new hire like this, the quarterback and/or face of the franchise guy spits standard lines like "I'm really excited about working with him" and "Obviously I'm sad that Bruce is gone, but I think Todd can help us continue to have one of the best offenses in the league."

Or something. Not for Roethlisberger -- he's enthusiastically terrified of change.

"That was my biggest talking point to Mike and those guys -- I would hate to just throw everything out and start over because I feel it would set us back two or three years because these guys are just starting to get it," Roethlisberger said. "I hope we don't have to start over and, if we do, you know what, here we go. Let's do it. We'll do it. We're not going to complain about it. But I would hate to have to set certain guys back who are doing so well right now."

Roethlisberger's concern is warranted, mainly because the Steelers passing game has really evolved into one of the league's best over the past few years. If hiring Haley meant taking a step back, that would obviously be problematic.

But the Rooney family has a decent history of producing good football teams and as much as Ben might be upset about the transition, he's better served to just trust the process and get to know Haley before passing too much judgment.

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Posted on: January 6, 2012 9:32 am
 

Film Room: Broncos vs. Steelers wild-card preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


It hardly seems fair that a 12-win team has to go on the road to face an eight-win team, but the NFL’s playoff seeding system is designed to reward division champions. That includes the rare division champion that enters the postseason on a three-game losing streak.

Here’s a breakdown of what many expect to be a massacre.


1. Broncos offense has no prayer
We covered everything there is to know about the Broncos’ offense last week in preparation for their Week 17 bout with the Chiefs. Nothing has changed. It’s clear that press-man coverage can overwhelm Denver’s passing attack, as the receivers don’t have the quickness to separate and Tim Tebow doesn’t have the mechanics, timing or confidence to fit balls into tight windows.

It’s rare to see the zone-based Steelers play press-man coverage, though they did so with great success against the Patriots in Week 8. Usually, shutdown corner Ike Taylor (yes, SHUTDOWN corner) plays press coverage against the opposing team’s top wideout (in this case, Demaryius Thomas), while William Gay, Keenan Lewis and/or Bryant McFadden play a variation of zone on the other side.

If Dick LeBeau wants to bait Tebow into interceptions, the Steelers may still stick with their traditional approach:

This shot from Super Bowl XLV illustrates the Steelers’ traditional approach to coverage: Ike Taylor playing press-man against the opposing team’s top receiver (Greg Jennings) on one side, with the rest of the secondary playing zone on the other (you can tell it’s zone by how cornerback Bryant McFadden is lined up off the line and with his body open slightly towards the inside).

The Broncos don’t have a threatening tight end, so Tebow would be throwing into heavy zones against athletic corners. If LeBeau wants to pressure Tebow with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and bait him into the usual slew of incompletions, he can play man-to-man. Whatever LeBeau chooses will work; we’re talking about the league’s top-ranked pass defense against the league’s most inept passing quarterback.

Lately, Denver’s read-option run game has still produced yardage, though only because of the high volume of carries. If the Broncos couldn’t muster more than three points by running against Kansas City’s 3-4, they can’t be expected to muster ANY points running against Pittsburgh’s.

A key to Denver’s run game is getting offensive linemen clean to inside linebackers. No three-man defensive line does a better job at protecting its inside linebackers than Pittsburgh’s. That’s why Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior are able to play with their ears pinned back.

2. A roll of the dice
Because it feels a little too simplistic to declare the Broncos’ chances at moving the ball to be zero (even if they are), we’ll use this section to present creative ideas for how the Broncos might – MIGHT – manage to muster a semblance of offense on Sunday.

The first idea is to just throw deep and hope luck tilts your way (a cornerback falls down, a ref calls pass interference, two Steelers collide while going after the same easy interception, etc.). Don’t count on Denver doing this, though. It goes against everything John Fox has stood for since turning to Tebow, and it also requires that, you know, Tebow actually throw downfield accurately.

Another idea is to draw up trick plays. Lots of trick plays. Problem is, a defense as experienced and disciplined as Pittsburgh’s is not going to bite. You might make chance-taker Troy Polamalu pay for a gamble once or twice, but more likely he’ll make YOU pay even more for YOUR gamble.

A third (and stronger) idea is to run the ball outside. In the past, outside running was guaranteed to fail against the Steelers. This season, however, Timmons and Farrior have not been as sharp in lateral run defense. That’s why Pittsburgh has struggled a bit against zone teams. The Broncos no longer have a zone run game (it left shortly after Shanahan departed), but it might not be crazy to hastily install one given that their usual approach will not work anyway.

Denver’s lack of running back speed is an issue here, but again: their usual approach will not work anyway!

3. Pittsburgh’s passing attack
As lopsided as this matchup seems, the final score could be tight given that Pittsburgh’s offense might have trouble against John Fox’s and Dennis Allen’s defense. Don’t be surprised if the Steelers come out throwing in an effort to build a quick lead that forces the Broncos to go to the air early.
 
Against the Browns last week, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians chose to spread the field with 3 x 2 empty backfield sets on passing downs. This may have been to get the ball out quickly so that Ben Roethlisberger would not have to make plays on his bum ankle. Though Roethlisberger has gotten much better in his presnap reads and sudden decision making, his natural inclination is still to extend the play. Thus, Big Ben still held the ball plenty long last week.

He won’t be able to do that this week, though – not under the same gameplan, anyway. Offensive tackles Max Starks and Marcus Gilbert may have been be able to handle Browns defensive ends Jayme Mitchell and Jabaal Sheard on an island (Sheard just barely, actually), but they won’t have a snowball’s chance against Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.

If Roethlisberger is to buy time for his receivers downfield, his offensive tackles will need running backs and tight ends to chip-block, if not stay in completely and double-team. Something else to keep in mind: Miller, D.J. Williams and Brian Dawkins all excel as inside blitzers. Blitz pickup is an area in which the Steelers interior line, particularly left guard Chris Kemoeatu, struggles.

Brown's emerged as one of Pittsburgh's best receiving options. (Getty Images)

4. The passing matchups
Even though protection could be a problem, it’s possible the Steelers will still spread the field and let Roethlisberger run around and make plays. We’ve seen them before give up piles of sacks this way but make up for it with big plays.

The Broncos have a good secondary now that undrafted rookie Chris Harris has blossomed at nickel corner, but they’re thin and inexperienced at safety and vulnerable with Jonathan Wilhite at dime corner.

If the Broncos decide to eliminate Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh’s new No. 1 receiver) with Champ Bailey, there will be big-play opportunities for Mike Wallace against the limited-ranged safeties. If Bailey defends Wallace, Andre Goodman can spar with Brown but probably not for as long as Roethlisberger can extend the play. Chris Harris will be tested by Emmanuel Sanders’ speed, and Wilhite will have fits trying to defend Jerricho Cotchery underneath.

As much as the Broncos might like their secondary, they can’t expect it to be the league’s first unit that sustains coverage against the Steelers’ prolonged improvisational plays. Thus, when the Broncos do blitz, don’t be surprised if they bring the kitchen sink to ensure that Roethlisberger goes down or throws hot.

5. Steelers run game
Rashard Mendenhall will be missed, but the Steelers can tread water with Isaac Redman. The third-year running back doesn’t have Mendenhall’s corner-turning speed and acceleration, but in confined areas he shows looser hips than you’d guess. Where Pittsburgh’s backfield woes will really show up is in the pass game. Mewelde Moore’s absence (foot injury) leaves them without a prominent openfield dumpoff receiver.

But this is a relatively minor issue. The primary job of the Steelers’ backfield is to pound the rock when called upon, which Redman and straight-line back John Clay are capable of doing. Also, Pittsburgh’s offensive line, especially with the superb pull-blocking skills of Kemoeatu, is capable of moving the pile down the stretch.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the wild-card games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: December 14, 2011 1:06 pm
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Steelers preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


At 10-3, the San Francisco 49ers are fighting for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. With two losses in their last three outings, questions are starting to lurk. Are the Niners indeed a top-tier club with a powerhouse defense and limited-but-fundamentally sound offense? Or are they, like the ’08 Dolphins or 08 Titans, just another middle-tier team that happened to rack up a lot of wins thanks to the good fortunes of turnover differential? (The Niners are currently first in the league at +21).

San Fran’s recent two losses have been to quality 3-4 defenses (Baltimore and Arizona). The Monday night matchup against Pittsburgh could provide the “moment of truth” for Jim Harbaugh’s club.


1. Niners’ protection woes
The Cardinals defense, led by former Steelers assistant Ray Horton, came after Alex Smith & Co. with fervidity and dimension. Horton’s panoply of blitzes brought rushers from all four linebacking spots and, on a few occasions, the secondary. San Francisco’s offensive line, particularly inside with LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin and RG Adam Snyder, floundered in their identification and reaction speed. Two weeks before, those three linemen, along with backup guard Chilo Rachal, were physically manhandled by Haloti Ngata and the tough Ravens front three.

The Niners spend most of their time in base offensive personnel, which has them line up against base defensive personnel. The Steelers are less aggressive than the Cardinals when it comes to blitzing out of base personnel (most of Dick LeBeau’s blitzes come from nickel and dime packages). And, physically, the Steelers defensive front three is not as powerful as the Ravens’.

That said, the trenches mismatch will still be glaring and hard for the Niners to avoid (see items 2 and 3).

2. Niners run game
Jim Harbaugh’s is a run-oriented offense in the purist form. On first and second downs, the 49ers align almost exclusively in 21 or 22 personnel (i.e. two backs and one or two tight ends). The Steelers, at times, even in their base defense with vociferous nose tackle Casey Hampton, have uncharacteristically struggled in run defense this season. But those struggles have come against zone-blocking teams like the Texans, Ravens or Bengals.

The 49ers are a power-blocking team. Their ground game is predicated on size and force, double-teams and interior pulls (Iupati is very mobile; Snyder is often ineffective off movement but can at least physically execute the plays). Power-blocking is not a good formula when facing the Steelers. Their defensive line cannot be consistently driven, and inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior play too fast for slow developing pull blocks to work.

3. Niners pass game
If the Niners do try to stick with their power ground game, they’ll inevitably face a handful of third-and-long situations. That will compel Harbaugh to spread into three-receiver sets. That’s when LeBeau will take advantage of San Francisco’s interior pass protection issues.

One of the hallmark blitzes in LeBeau’s portfolio is the Fire-X, which is when both inside linebackers crisscross and attack the A-gaps. The Steelers execute Fire-X’s better than any team in football. James Farrior is brilliant in timing his blitzes and setting up pass-rushing lanes for teammates. Lawrence Timmons is more explosive than Acetone Peroxide when firing downhill.

What’s more, Troy Polamalu’s versatility becomes more pronounced in passing situations. That’s problematic given how much trouble Adrian Wilson (a poor man’s Polamalu) gave the Niners last week.

Because rushing yards could be tough to come by, it’s very likely that the Niners will throw on early downs out of base personnel (they had success with this formula against the Giants a few weeks ago). To help Alex Smith thrive in these scenarios, Harbaugh has implemented several changes this season – such as using play-action and specific route designs that allow for one-read throws, eliminating sight adjustment routes to ensure that the receivers and quarterback are always on the same page and being very judicious in calling “shot plays” downfield.

But in most games, there are points when a quarterback and his receivers simply have to make things happen. Smith doesn’t have the dynamic tools to consistently do that against a D like Pittsburgh’s. His primary wide receivers don’t have the speed and quickness to regularly separate outside (especially against a star cornerback like Ike Taylor). And, most concerning, his offensive tackles, particularly lackluster second-year pro Anthony Davis, are not formidable enough in pass protection to stave off LaMarr Woodley or even Jason Worilds.

4. Niners defensive line vs. Steelers O-line
The good news for Harbaugh is his defense is capable of posing nearly just as many problems for the Steelers offense. Obviously, Ben Roethlisberger’s health will have a significant impact on this game. You already know the advantages Big Ben gives the Steelers.

Almost as important is the health of center Maurkice Pouncey. Like Roethlisberger, he’s battling a Grade 1 high ankle sprain. Pouncey could not finish the game against Cleveland but says he’ll play Monday night. That’s huge. Without Pouncey, the Steelers would have to slide Doug Legursky from left guard to center, which poses a substantial drop-off in mobility and strength (even if Legursky has been somewhat of an overachiever the last year).

What’s more, Chris Kemoeatu would be forced back into the lineup at left guard. Kemoeatu has been a top ten player at his position the past few years. But for whatever reason, he’s fallen flat on his face this season – mainly in pass protection, where he’s shown poor lateral agility and a proclivity for holding.

Even at full strength, the Steelers offensive line is average and, thus, incapable of completely neutralizing the 49ers front line over four quarters. Left end Justin Smith is as good as they get. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga has blossomed into a plugger who’s mobile enough to make plays anywhere in the box.

Right end Ray McDonald is healthy again and flashing uncommon initial quickness. And on passing downs, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are lightning fast, supple edge-rushers with versatile short-area explosiveness. It’s highly doubtful the Steeler tackles can contain them one-on-one.

5. San Francisco’s defensive back seven
Even if Patrick Willis’ hamstring keeps him out a third-straight game, the Niners have enough speed and burst with NaVorro Bowman and strong safety Donte Whitner to answer Pittsburgh’s methodical rushing attack. The key will be whether San Francisco can hold up in pass defense. The Niners like to play zone in base D and man in nickel or dime.

Without Willis, San Francisco’s zones become somewhat vulnerable inside (we saw this on Early Doucet’s 60-yard touchdown last week). In man, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver are all capable of hanging with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace, but not if Roethlisberger is able to extend the play (Brown is simply too good at making late adjustments to his route, Sanders is similar and Wallace obviously has lethal speed if he can get downfield).

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 15 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
 
 
 
 
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