Ben Roethlisberger’s fitness is one of the intangibles when Pittsburgh visits San Francisco tonight. Frank Doyle reports.
The past two Monday Night games weren’t the most attractive but tonight more than makes up for it. Pittsburgh visits San Francisco tonight in what is a potential Super Bowl showdown.
The teams have resolutely different images – the sophisticated, cocktail drinking Californians hosting the blue collar, beer and a shot Pennsylvanians – but this year the teams have played very similar games, relying on a tough defense and slightly pared-down offenses compared to offensive high fliers like Green Bay, New England or New Orleans.
The teams come to Monday Night Football on different season trajectories. San Francisco has enjoyed a great start to the season but the 49ers momentum slowed after they lost the Harbowl at Baltimore on Thanksgiving. The Niners are 1-2 after a 9-1 start, and the eve of the playoffs is not the best time to start running on empty.
The Steelers, by contrast, are priming nicely to go one better than last year and win the Super Bowl. A 2-2 start and a season sweep against Baltimore had football fans wondering if time had caught up with the Steelers, but here they are, looking dangerous for the playoffs, just like always.
Tonight, the Steelers also look a little short staffed. Ben Roethlisberger picked up an ankle sprain ten days ago against Cleveland and his status is questionable.
The NFL’s decision to ban James Harrison for a helmet to helmet hit on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy is equally questionable, but there isn’t a whole lot the Steelers can do about it now. Harrison’s absence is matched by the Niners’ loss of linebacker Patrick Willis, who’s on the IR with a hamstring strain.
Willis a big loss to the 49ers, but San Francisco’s inability to produce in the red zone is a greater point of concern. The Niners have been settling for field goals where they had been scoring touchdowns earlier in the season and that level of offensive impotence will kill you in the end.
The fact that the sports betting over/under for this game is set at less than forty tells you that both teams will go old school tonight. If anybody airs out it’ll be the Steelers – the Niners have a dangerous receiving corps in Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, but quarterback Alex Smith isn’t in the same class as Ben Roethlisberger. Very few are.
If Charlie Batch plays instead of Roethlisberger, you’re looking at a 12-9 game. If Roethlisberger starts and the Niners can’t take advantage of his limited mobility, San Francisco could suffer another mortal blow just when they can afford it least.