Steelers Opponent Preview: the San Francisco 49ers

The last time the Steelers played the 49ers things didn’t go so well, for either team. The 49ers were embarrassed on Monday Night Football by not one but two power outages in their ancient park. The Steelers were embarrassed on Monday Night Football by the 49ers.

Admittedly, the Steelers were playing with half a quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger played a week after badly spraining his ankle in the game against Cleveland.) They also played without James Harrison, who was suspended for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy the previous week. (The suspension was perhaps questionable, as McCoy had tucked the ball and lowered his head to run at that point, but the league was out to make a statement.)

Ultimately, the final score of 20 – 3 in favor of San Francisco makes it look as if the Steelers played better than they actually did. Ben fumbled twice, losing one, and threw three picks. The running game accumulated a total of 84 yards, with one of them coming from Roethlisberger. (Question—if you only have one leg, can it be said to be “rushing?”)

Despite that, Ben’s one-yard run was better than the -1 yard on two attempts by Isaac Redman. It is not a night to remember with pride.

And to demonstrate just what a nadir this game was in what was, before that night, a 10-3 season, it was pointed out that the Steelers were 0 for 3 against teams coached by a Harbaugh at the end of the game.

There is reason to believe the results on Sunday will be better than that.  Candlestick Park is history, and at any rate the game is at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger has the use of both his legs, and James Harrison is not suspended.

I’m certainly not guaranteeing a win, but a lot of things have changed for both teams.

One of those changes is the head coach. Jim Harbaugh is but a distant memory, and Jim Tomsula is now the head honcho.

Tomsula has an interesting history with the 49ers. He was Mike Singletary’s defensive line coach, and replaced him for the final game of the 2010 season after Singletary was fired. (Singletary himself was the defensive assistant head coach in 2008 and replace the fired Mike Nolan half-way through the season.)

After coaching Game 16 in 2010, Tomsula returned to his previous job when Jim Harbaugh was hired. He was again promoted after Harbaugh was fired at the end of last season.

If it looks as if the 49ers coaching history is pretty turbulent, it’s fair to note that pretty much any team’s history since 1970 looks turbulent compared to the Steelers’ three head coaches in 45 years or so.

But indeed Tomsula is the 14th head coach since 1970, despite Bill Walsh’s ten years as head coach and fairly long tenures for Steve Mariucci and George Siefert. Tomsula is the sixth head coach since 2003, if you count his tenure twice.

The quarterback is different as well. Alex Smith quarterbacked the Niners for the fateful game in 2011 in what turned out to be his last full season with San Francisco (and best statistically of his career.) He was famously replaced by Colin Kaepernick after sitting out a game with a concussion, and never regained the starting job.

Kaepernick came into the league along with several highly-regarded college quarterbacks who ran a read-option. As Mike Tomlin said when asked about it at the NFL owners meetings in 2013:

I think it’s the flavor of the day. We will see if it’s the flavor of the year. We’ll see if guys are committed to getting their guys hit. We look forward to eliminating it.

It’s interesting to look at Kaepernick’s regular season numbers since 2011. In 2012 he played 536 snaps and received a Pro Football Focus rating of 23.5, making him No. 19 out of 42 ranked quarterbacks. In 2013 he played 999 snaps, garnered a rating of 21.1, and was again the No. 19 slot, out of 42. Last season he played 1077 snaps, received a rating of 9.7, and was No. 20 out of 39.

So he hasn’t tanked, but he is in that difficult transition period which any running QB has to make to be a truly successful NFL QB. As Chris Wesseling of said in an article last December:

Now that the 49ers have invested in Kaepernick as the face of the franchise, it’s incumbent on the coaching staff to minimize the injury risk. The direct result is less reliance on the read-option and a staunch commitment to developing a pocket passer.

That transition is fraught with growing pains.

A one-read passer with accuracy and touch issues, Kaepernick is on pace for a franchise record 51 sacks despite persistent accusations that he flees the pocket prematurely.

That speaks to a confused signal-caller, being instructed to go through his progressions but still unable to make the correct pre- and post-snap reads…

Kaepernick is not the only hyper-athletic young quarterback struggling with the metamorphosis from a college spread offense to consistently delivering the ball from the pocket.

Citing the frenetic play of Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, former Colts president and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian told’s Peter King this week that the NFL is seeing “the incredible erosion of the running quarterback.”

The sustained dominance of quintessential pocket passers such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady has proven that the job of a championship quarterback is to “orchestrate and to be a master of the data– from formation, to blitzes, to coverages,” [ESPN analyst Steve] Young explained last week…

The ability to reflexively process the mountain of data from the huddle to the line of scrimmage is dependent upon quality coaching and the quarterback’s willingness to put in long, tedious offseason hours to become an expert on opponents’ personnel and tendencies, while armed with an intimate knowledge of his own teammate’s assignments on every play.

In other words, I hoped perhaps the Steelers defense would have a better chance against Kaepernick than against a savvy old veteran like Tom Brady. It also seemed Tomlin was correct, although anyone looking at what has happened to Robert Griffen III would already have come to that conclusion.

However, there have been mutterings out of the 49ers organization about “utilizing Kaepernick’s athleticism” which indicated they were possibly planning to take a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” stance. This would presumably pay some early benefits at the expense of the long-term strategy. So what did the Monday night game against the Vikings demonstrate in this regard?

First, out of the 73 offensive snaps Pro Football Focus indicated he was on the field, he dropped back to pass 31 times. He actually attempted a pass for 26 of those, with 17 completions, and ran seven times for 41 yards. He was sacked once.

His completion percentage was 65.4%—not embarrassing but not stellar either. He averaged 6.3 yards per attempt, for a total of 165 yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions.

The only quarterbacks to run more times last week were Russell Wilson, [8/31] and Aaron Rodgers, who had eight rushes for 35 yards.

It also seemed the Niners had some offensive line issues, with a lot of horse-trading and shuffling happening near the end of August. But they graded out at No. 4 for run blocking with a rating of 1.0, behind only the Titans, Saints, and Jaguars, which explains why Carlos Hyde had such a big game. In case you’re wondering, the Steelers offensive line did not fare so well in run blocking, with a rating of -4.0, putting them in the bottom third of the league.

Curiously, Hyde and DeAngelo Williams are the No. 1 and No. 2 backs for last week according to PFF, with ratings of 5.4 and 3.3 respectively. You would have thought if PFF considered the blocking for Hyde to be a lot better than the blocking for Williams, Williams would have graded out better, but the ways of PFF are mysterious sometimes.

Pass blocking was another story for both teams. The Steelers were tied with the Patriots at 0.8 (good for No. 10), while San Francisco’s pass blocking was a -1.5, putting them in the lower half of the league.

According to Offensive Coordinator Geep Chryst everyone is dripping with chemistry, (well, perhaps he didn’t say it quite like that,) but it remains to be seen whether a still-coalescing offensive line and a largely new group of receivers will play really well in a hostile environment in Week 2, especially with a short week in which to prepare.

I am hoping perhaps the Steelers defense will have a bit better chance to muddy the waters, and the besieged secondary will be the beneficiaries of some poor throws. But these hopes are fainter then they were before Monday night.

The 49ers defense is somewhat of a work in progress. It received a massive overhaul in the off-season, and some of their most accomplished players left, among them Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, and Perrish Cox. Only three starters from Super Bowl XLVII are still on the team.

Furthermore, essentially the entire defensive coaching staff left or was replaced, with Eric Mangini assuming the defensive coordinator duties.

As a result of this, I was hoping there would be a considerable amount of confusion and rookie mistakes. Unfortunately for the Steelers offense, if their defense was confused and prone to rookie mistakes it sure didn’t show. However, it is fair to say that Teddy Bridgewater isn’t Ben Roethlisberger. Ben might have a few veteran tricks up his sleeve.

Before I wrap up, here are a few comments from Mike Tomlin’s Tuesday press conference about the 49ers:

They played good ball last night. I thought they dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides.

Offensively, their run game was stellar…Kaepernick’s mobility is obviously something that is going to be an issue for us, something that we have to work to minimize…His ability to improv as plays break down and find escape lanes is a critical element… We have to be great in terms of rushing coverage and, more importantly, rush lane integrity.

Tomlin then elaborated on some of the receivers. I loved the comment about Anquan Boldin:

…a guy who can make combat catches, and has for probably 14 or 15 years now.

I thought Tomlin was being funny, but he’s only off by a year. Bolden was a rookie in 2003, and here’s what he did, according to his Wikipedia article:

As a rookie Boldin set an NFL record for most receiving yards by a rookie in his first game (217), tied Billy Sims for most yards from scrimmage by a rookie in his first game (217), and holds the NFL record for most receptions in the first 26 games of an NFL career (157). He is also the fastest to record 300 career receptions (47 games) and finished the season with 101 catches, 1,377 receiving yards, and eight scores.

Back to Tomlin:

If you look at them on defense, I thought the story of the game for them defensively, at least last night, was their ability to minimize Adrian Peterson on 1st and 10, and oftentimes doing so in two high safety defenses. That speaks to their stout front… They played good sub-package defense.

Tomlin had lots of nice things to say about Eric Mangini. He then talked about special teams, and wrapped up his remarks:

…it’s just important that we get off to a good sound start this week [in practice]…to decide the way we want to attack these guys in all three phases.

For the remainder of the article I’ll note a few players of interest.

The first one isn’t actually on the team, and the interesting part is why. Chris Borland, a rookie linebacker last season who was expected to take over from the departed Patrick Willis retired during the offseason. The International Business Times published a fascinating article on this, and the picture they chose for the header was what I presume was Mike Webster’s helmet. Borland told ESPN:

I’ve thought about what I could accomplish in football, but for me, personally, when you read about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, you read all these stories, and to be the type of player I want to be in football, I think I’d have to take on some risks that, as a person, I don’t want to take on.

Borland estimates he has had at least 30 concussions. I don’t blame him one bit. Perhaps the most interesting bit of this story is the following, reported by Real GM:

Days after Borland retired, the NFL emailed him demanding he take a drug test.

“I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist,” he says. “I just wanted to be sure.” Borland agreed to submit a urine sample to the NFL’s representative, who drove in from Green Bay and administered the test in the Wisconsin trainer’s room. Then [Borland] hired a private firm for $150 to test him independently. Both tests came back negative, according to Borland.

Would someone please get Roger out of there?

On to the guys actually playing:

WR Torrey Smith:

An old friend greets us on Sunday. Once thought to be the Ravens’ equivalent to Antonio Brown, Smith never really developed as it seemed his talent would suggest, and he even lost his starting job to newly signed veteran Steve Smith Sr. in 2014.

The Ravens chose not to offer him a second contract at the end of the season, and Smith signed with San Francisco.

It seems like the Ravens missed him on Sunday.

WR Anquan Boldin:

Steeler Nation likes to joke about Pittsburgh West when the Cardinals sign so many former Steelers, and it seems as if the 49ers offense is becoming Baltimore West. Boldin played for the Ravens for three seasons, from 2010 through 2012, and was traded to San Francisco.

Smith and Boldin are co-starters on the Week 1 depth chart.

Odd thing to note: As I searched a page of images for Colin Kaepernick, I could find loads of pictures of him modeling suits, or getting tattooed, or just his tattoos, or head shots with a baseball cap frontways, or a baseball cap worn backwards, but unlike essentially every other quarterback I’ve looked for pictures of, there are very few pictures of him actually, you know, playing football. I had to google “Colin Kaepernick throwing football” to get a suitable picture. I wonder what this means? 


  • You know Rebecca, you’re rather good at this.

    A preview that actually contains research, analysis, historical context and nuance. What a concept. People will read this and are liable to want to watch the game and enjoy the experience. Learned a lot and was reminded of even more. It takes us beyond the more superficial, tunnel visioned story lines that, no doubt, have their place, but often contributes to a feeling that game day is constrained narrative that just began last week, or at best, training camp. Feel like I’m just a Going Deep homer here, but great work.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Amen. It’s really nice to have a Steelers site which is more than a Steelers site, way more. Consider me a gusher. Intelligent and entertaining– invective free.


  • BringBackDanKreider

    Long time BTSC reader. Have missed articles like this since Neal left. Wanted to thank fever for mentioning this site over there

    Liked by 2 people

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Great article as always.

    I noticed an article on Steelers Wire about Sammie Coates. There has been nothing to suggest that Coates isn’t improving as quickly if not more quickly than Bryant so what could the reason be for Murphy to be dressing ahead of him when the thought occurred to me that the problem isn’t that Coates isn’t doing well, it is that Murphy is far exceeding initial expectations.

    If the Steelers are becoming a WR factory, we shouldn’t be surprised if there is a WR clearance sale at some point to make room. The question would then be which models would be on sale. Would the new stock be sold off as soon as it has received a bit of polish or would the fine and sturdy but older models be whisked off to provide some room on the show room floor?

    Two dogs, one bone is one thing but 5 starting quality WR and 3 starting spots is another.

    It will be interesting to see how and which receivers are used in the game till Bryant returns.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s also the embarassment of riches that the Steelers have had at the position in the last few years. Not every receiver will have success right away in the NFL — but several have for the Steelers, so our expectations have increased. But Coates is, after all, a mid-round WR. He may *look* like Bryant, but it doesn’t mean he can play like him.

      I think the Steelers will simply let contracts run out. Despite the clamoring from fans, trades just don’t happen that often.


    • Murphy looked really good when we were visiting training camp. At the time I thought the best he could hope for was practice squad given the numbers, but the Bryant suspension opened that opportunity for him. Still possible that’s where he’ll end up, not because he’s not capable, but as elpalito points out, an embarassment of riches in that position group.


      • cold_old_steelers_fan

        I don’t think Murphy will clear waivers at this point in time. He hasn’t had a lot of exposure but I think he has had enough. When Bryant comes back we are going to lose a receiver, either through waiver pick-up or trade. The only exception might be Archer but I suspect someone will kick the tires on him if he is released. When you have an embarrassment of riches, other folks notice.


  • Kaepernick has a good story and I would not root against his success. Just not this week.


    • I agree. He’s fun to watch, too. But I’m hoping the Steelers can slow him down, or outscore him if the defense can’t slow him down sufficiently. Both would be even nicer…


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