For this week’s preview, I am compelled to make a generic “keys to the game” list, but statistically informed. However, I can’t call them “keys” because everyone else does that. So, in honor of the 49ers, I’m calling them “gold nuggets”, and there are 49 of them! Just kidding, I wouldn’t do that to you, but the square root of 49 is 7, making that the perfect number of gold nuggets for this preview.
1. Make it a defensive battle.
The Steelers are current ranked fifth in offensive DVOA and ninth in defensive DVOA, while the 49ers are ranked 21st offensively and third defensively. As there is obviously a question of how well the Steelers offense will perform with Ben Roethlisberger’s injury, the defense will have to steal the show in this game, because I don’t see the offense scoring more than 20. I’d be glad to be wrong, though.
2. Involve Mendenhall in the passing game.
To protect Ben (or Batch), there will be plenty of short passes. Fortunately, the 49ers are 23rd in DVOA allowed to running backs in the passing game. So throwing it to Mendenhall, Redman, or Moore might be a good strategy.
3. On the same note, watch for Frank Gore in the passing game.
One of the Steelers’ weaknesses on defense is against running backs out of the backfield (17th in DVOA against). While Gore hasn’t been a huge weapon receiving so far this year, it is still something to look for.
4. Win the special teams battle.
Both teams are ranked highly in special teams DVOA (Steelers ninth, 49ers second). The 49ers are one of the best teams in the NFL at both kick returns and punt returns. Suisham and Kapinos will need good days, because if the game is close (and I think it will be), one bad kick will make the difference between a 17-14 game and a 21-17 game.
5. Don’t let the death of Kim Jong-Il affect you.
I know you think it’s exciting that one of the few remaining Communist dictators passed away, and you may have mixed feelings about how his son Kim Jong-un will lead one of the more unstable countries in the world. Just remember, though there may be long-term effects for the world, there are no immediate effects on football, so go out there and do what you’d normally do, with no worry that a North Korean nuclear missile will hit the stadium in the third quarter!
6. Control the 49ers’ third and fourth receivers, including Braylon Edwards.
The Steelers’ are also weak against non-starting receivers (21st in DVOA), and the 49ers have Braylon Edwards, who’s had some of the better games of his career against the Steelers. Either Edwards or Ted Ginn (or both) will likely have a big catch in this game, but if they don’t, the Steelers will have the game in hand.
7. Throw deep when able.
The 49ers’ other weakness in pass defense is against #1 WRs (16th in DVOA). This would normally be indication that steady doses of Mike Wallace are called for. With the unsettled QB injury situation for the game, the playbook may change, but as long as the Steelers’ QB is able to get the ball to Wallace, the opportunity should be there.
This will be a very close game, especially with injuries affecting the Steelers. I think it will end up being a defensive battle, meaning the Steelers will be able to pull it out, and the Twitter fans will say things like “ALOLex Smith” when Smith throws a late-game interception. Steelers 17, 49ers 14