Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer breaks down this upcoming game against the Steelers in his latest online and 49ers GAMEDAY program column, Points of the Game.
The 49ers coordinators are going to have to scheme against two long time coordinators in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
LeBeau is the longest running 3-4 guru in the NFL. His 3-4 is different than a lot of 3-4's because he runs a lot of rush zones. He's also going to change things up a little because the head coach, Mike Tomlin, is a former defensive coordinator who comes more from a four-man front. The Steelers have integrated more 4-3 packages than in the past. Tomlin, being a former secondary coach, is always concerned about protecting the coverage guys and not leaving them on an island, where LeBeau is more of a get in your face guy. I think they are melding those two schemes together to build a pretty good unit that ranks third best in the NFL after two games.
They do a great job against the run and part of that is due to safety Troy Polamalu who is unbelievable in run support. He's going to constantly come up and he knows where to be on every play. For a defense, it's not just about going after the ball, it's also about knowing your responsibilities, and this is a team that has returned 10 out of 11 starters. It's going to be the best test so far for the 49ers. As far as how to scheme against it, if I were putting together a game plan I'd try to use the Steelers speed against them by running more counter plays or some reverses to slow down the pursuit.
I would like to see a few passes on first down from Alex Smith. People know that Frank Gore is the 49ers run game, so maybe the 49ers can take advantage of having eight men in the box on first down. They can use the play action pass with max protect and not go vertical deep, but have somebody use an intermediate route. It seems like the few times we have gone max protect off a play action, we have taken shots deep, so teams start looking at that on tape and start expecting you to go deep off a play action. So if the linebackers get sucked up and the corners are playing deep, there should some holes in those intermediate routes. Vernon Davis would be the perfect guy to use in those types of routes. Whether it's a sail route or a crossing route behind the linebackers who have been sucked up on the play action pass, he should be able to be effective in those routes.
In terms of the Steelers linebackers, it looks like LB James Harrison has been cleared to play after suffering a neck injury in the Buffalo game, but the Steelers have also been pretty high on his backup, second-round pick LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers expect Woodley to come in on 3rd down situations this season, but if they have to go to him more they probably won't drop him in coverage as much as they do Harrison because he's a former defensive end. Woodley is probably more effective against the run as a 270 pound outside backer. If he's in there, the 49ers should test him early.
For the receivers, this is going to be a lot like going against the secondary in Arizona. Polamalu is the AFC version of Adrian Wilson. Both are excellent players in the box, and both are big-time playmakers. The difference might be that Polamalu has a bit more speed. The Cardinals secondary didn't give up much, mainly due to Wilson's play. It will give the 49ers an opportunity to see what they did right and wrong by going back and looking at that tape and learning from it, so they don't make some of the same mistakes against Polamalu.
Now on to the Steelers offense which following the departure of Ken Whisenhunt to Arizona is now headed up by Arians, another NFL veteran coach.
The Steelers offense starts up front in Pro Bowlers Alan Faneca and Marvel Smith who play on the left side, which also happens to be the strength of their line. Watching some of the tape from last week, some of those holes, anyone could have run through them. They were humungous holes. They do a great job in the power running game. They use angles and have big bodies up there. They are historically strong in the offensive line. Sean Mahan is a new center who will be starting. It will be a little different because the old center, Jeff Hartings, used to make all the calls. This year, they are taking that responsibility and putting it on the shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger. Probably half of the quarterbacks in the league make the line calls for protection. It makes things easier for Mahan, but it also makes things a little tougher on Roethlisberger with all the movement the 49ers do. In order to confuse him more, I will be expecting there to be a lot of pre-snap movement, not only from the secondary, but also the 49ers front seven.
I think Hines Ward is the best blocking wide receiver in the NFL. They haven't used any trick plays with him yet, which was a staple when Ken Whisenhunt called the offense. Even though there is a new offensive coordinator there, this is about the right time of year for them to use one.
Roethlisberger kind of struggled last year, so what the Steelers want to do this year is use more of a power running game and then using play action pass to get the ball deep down the field. They want to take shots to those guys who can get very deep down the field in Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington. Then they can have Ward work all those underneath routes since he is so strong, smart, and able to find those holes. All three receivers are capable of having big games, so it will be another test for our secondary. Nate Clements, Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer will all be tested, and how they fare will probably make a difference in this game.
With both teams at 2-0 on the year, this is an opportunity for either club to really make a statement. The Steelers outrank the 49ers in NFL rankings on the offensive and defensive fronts, so this is a chance for the 49ers to compete against a talented ball club. Another win on the road over the Steelers would send a message to the rest of the NFL.