Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, December 19, 2011 at 9:31 AM
Monday Night's Steelers-49ers showdown is one of the most anticipated ESPN games of the whole season. Part of that is that ESPN got stuck with a lousy schedule! But, we're also looking at a pair of 10-3 teams who figure to play big roles in the coming postseason.
These are playoff caliber teams to be sure. And, there's even a chance this is a Super Bowl preview!
Of course, the odds are heavily stacked against that for many reasons. San Francisco has a rookie head coach and a quarterback you can't really trust in big games. Pittsburgh looks to have lost a step from last season's Super Bowl run. And, now Ben Roethlisberger is limping around in a walking boot. As we write this, his status is still up in the air for Monday Night's big game.
You're going to hear a lot of hype all day Monday about how great these two teams are. The NFL Network isn't exactly prone to downplay the quality of the league's best teams. ESPN tries to make Tyler Palko seem like a big story...so you can imagine what they'd do with a game like this given 20 analysts and a full day of SportsCenter to fill.
We're going to head the other direction. If you've watched a lot of these teams this season, you know that each has had some trouble playing up to truly elite standards on a consistent basis. Let's start with Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are 0-2 against the Baltimore Ravens, making it pretty clear that they're not even the best team in their own division at the moment. They're certainly capable of beating the Ravens if the two were to meet again in the playoffs. But, you can't make a case that Pittsburgh is currently superior to Baltimore.
Pittsburgh also lost to division leader Houston back in September when Houston was at something much closer to full strength. The Texans may not be a championship threat any more because of all of their injuries. They were playing at a very high level back then though...and Pittsburgh couldn't match that level.
Pittsburgh has had a stunning sequence of lethargic wins over bad teams. That started back in September with a 23-20 victory over horrible Indianapolis. A few weeks later they had to struggle to a 17-13 yawner at home against Jacksonville. A few weeks ago you may have watched a lousy 13-9 victory over an awful Kansas City team. Think about how bad Indy and Kansas City have been this year when playing backup quarterbacks. Pittsburgh barely beat them! And, their most recent game against Cleveland was going the same way...as the Steelers held a slight 7-3 lead very late in the game before busting a long TD play on a short pass.
Pittsburgh is capable of playing great football. They just aren't doing it very often!
SAN FRANCISCO'S DISAPPOINTMENTS
The 49ers lost at home to Dallas early in the season in a game that wasn't as close as the final score made it sound. Dallas won total yardage 472-206, and yards-per-play 7.2 to 3.8. The Cowboys then and now are a borderline playoff team who can't be trusted late in close games. San Francisco lost a close game to them in overtime.
The 49ers couldn't get anything going on the road at Baltimore on Thanksgiving Night. Yes, that's a long jump on the calendar from Week Two to Thanksgiving. But, it was a long jump on the schedule before the Niners played a true Super Bowl threat. Philadelphia turned out to be a mistake-prone pretender. Detroit's in the same boat. Road wins over the Eagles and Lions looked great at the time. The road loss at Baltimore had much more of a playoff feel to it given the caliber of the opponent.
The 49ers lost last week at Arizona even though John Skelton had to play quarterback most of the way for the home underdog Cardinals. This was also a game where the stats were more one-sided than the 21-19 final score. Arizona won yardage 325-233, and yards-per-play 6.0 to 3.7. At least Pittsburgh survived their close games vs. losing teams. San Francisco was actually outplayed by a losing team starting a lower rung backup quarterback.
Given what you've seen when San Francisco steps up in class, would you like their chances on a blustery January afternoon in Green Bay? They can beat New Orleans. Would you love them against New Orleans, even if the game is in San Francisco? Is recent form showing us that even Atlanta is now playing better football than the Niners?
Maybe Pittsburgh-San Francisco is a Super Bowl preview. Maybe it's just a stepping stone preview...featuring teams that the eventual conference winners will use as stepping stones on the way to their titles. Let's crunch our favorite indicator numbers to see what they might say about all of that...and what they suggest about tonight's meeting.
Pittsburgh: 14.0 on offense, 9.2 on defense
San Francisco: 8.5 on offense, 9.5 on defense
Pittsburgh definitely has the look of a top quality playoff team when you study points scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. That +4.8 differential...particularly when the defense is holding opponents to single digits per game...is right in the championship wheelhouse. San Francisco is exposed as a pretender in this stat...our favorite indicator stat in all of sports. They actually have a negative differential! Alex Smith can't be trusted to drive the field. The running attack can eat up clock...and can put points on the board slowly and surely vs. bad opposition. They don't currently have a playoff caliber offense by any stretch of the imagination. Were Roethlisberger at full strength, this stat would be screaming for a play on the visitor.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Pittsburgh: 46% on offense, 40% on defense
San Francisco: 29% on offense, 33% on defense
As is often the case, third downs backup what the Drive Point data is saying. Pittsburgh's offense can move the chains. The defense has been a disappointment considering the league is centered around 38% this year. But...that's still a +6 differential in percentage points in a stat that has a great correlation to success in this league. San Francisco's offense is just DISMAL on third down plays. They settle for too many field goals when they're in the scoring zone. They don't even make it to the scoring zone as much as most other contenders do.
Pittsburgh: -7 (14 takeaways, 21 giveaways)
San Francisco: +21 (31 takeaways, 10 giveaways)
HELLO! This is where San Francisco gets it all back. They've done a great job of stealing the ball from a soft schedule...while the offense plays it very safe and tries to grind out victories. Coach Jim Harbaugh has decided that punting is the better part of valor when the alternative is asking quarterback Smith to run high risk plays. It's a framework that helps you beat bad teams, and helps you at least hang tough with good teams as long as your defense isn't getting overwhelmed by a high quality opponent. Needless to say, San Francisco MUST keep winning this stat if they want to be relevant in January.
We've talked about turnovers a lot with Pittsburgh this year, because they keep popping up in marquee games that we're previewing! They're actually now in plus territory since the early stages of the season. Don't forget that they dropped the turnover category 7-0 in the season opener at Baltimore. It's dead even since then. They also had troubles through their first five games...sitting at 12-2 the wrong way after six full games! That means they're +3 ever since. This is a stat that should be a strength for the Steelers. It's not this year...which is one reason they've had so many sluggish outings vs. teams that shouldn't be threats.
Please check with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK Monday afternoon online or in the office (1-800-323-4453) for the final word in this game. Obviously the quarterback situation for Pittsburgh is going to loom large on the road against a defense that forces turnovers. Any side or total opinion will be greatly influenced by that particular matchup. JIM HURLEY knows how important Monday Night's are in your portfolio. He'll find you the best play!
We'll also have some basketball for you Monday Night. We're looking at games like Marquette-LSU, UCSB-California, and TCU-USC for possible action.
Back with you Tuesday in the NOTEBOOK to preview this week's bowl games:
Tuesday: St. Petersburg Bowl matching Florida International and Marshall
Wednesday: Poinsettia Bowl matching Louisiana Tech and TCU
Thursday: Maaco Las Vegas bowl matching Boise State and Arizona State
All three of those games will be covered in our Tuesday report. Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY through the next few weeks so you know what's REALLY going on down the stretch in the NFL and throughout the college bowls!