By Christina Rivers
After a low offensive performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday, the San Francisco 49ers will head to Heinz Field on Sunday to face a Pittsburgh Steelers team looking for retribution after a close loss to the New England Patriots on the opening night of the 2015 NFL regular season.
Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers didn’t put together a fantastic performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, but it was a strong outing to earn their first win of the 2015 NFL regular season. In a game that saw the Niners score their points via the rushing of Carlos Hyde and off the leg of kicker Phil Dawson, concerns that San Francisco would struggle this season once again were raised. On Sunday, a short week of preparation ahead, the Niners will travel to hostile territory at Heinz Field to take on a Pittsburgh Steelers team that pushes an explosive offense on the field yet continues to look for answers in a young defense.
The 49ers were able to escape Teddy Bridgewater and the Minnesota Vikings that went undefeated in the preseason on Monday night by a score of 20-3. The win tied San Francisco in the NFC West with the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams in the win/loss column.
Favored to make another Super Bowl run at the beginning of the 2014 season, the Niners fell apart and their Week 15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks mathematically eliminated them from the postseason for the first time since 2010. After watching head coach Jim Harbaugh leave for Michigan after the season ended, the Niners look to improve their 2015 season under head coach Jim Tomsula.
Niners on Offense
The disappointment was palpable as San Francisco struggled to get their offense in sync against the Vikings, watching quarterback Colin Kaepernick fail to score a touchdown pass in four quarters of play. Kaepernick completed 17 of 26 passes for just 165 yards. The offense was carried on the legs of running back Carlos Hyde who rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Anquan Boldin set a new 49ers record on Monday by making a fourth quarter catch that was his 944th career reception, moving him into 14th place on the NFL’s all-time reception list, passing Derrick Mason.
Kaepernick remained valuable as a rusher, recording 41 yards on seven carries. It is his ability to use his legs to keep the offense moving that the Steelers are spending time focusing on while preparing for Sunday’s game. On Monday, before the game, veteran linebacker Arthur Moats said, “The running element is a bigger factor this week,” when asked about containing Kaepernick. “As far as your rushing lane you have to be more disciplined and know what type of animal you are dealing with.” Kaepernick isn’t the pocket passer Brady was against the Steelers and the front seven will be called on to step up to not only disrupt his ability to pass but keep him locked between the tackles.
Niners on Defense
Navarro Bowman had a disruptive performance against the Vikings, recording seven tackles and a sack. The Niners’ defensive captain was a consistent presence, limiting Minnesota’s production on offense. His main assignment was to keep former league MVP Adrian Peterson from running the field, and for the most part Bowman did his job by holding Peterson to just 31 yards and no score. As a unit, the Niners defense were able to stack the rushing lanes and force Bridgewater to turn to the pass to move the Vikings offense.
Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams will be the next test for the Niners defense, one that was questioned during the offseason as to the level it would perform at. Antoine Bethea made a key tackle on tight end Kyle Rudolph that halted one offensive series and proved that San Francisco is ready to face a Steelers team with weapons in Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth. By limiting the Vikings to just three points (a field goal), San Francisco brings an improved Eric Mangini-coached defense to Pittsburgh.
Mangini wasn’t afraid to turn his defensive backs loose on Bridgewater and will likely employ a similar scheme against Steelers veteran Ben Roethlisberger. Rookie safety Jaquiski Tartt recorded his first regular season sack for a 14-yard loss in the first quarter. With strong pressure from their defensive line, Tank Carradine recorded his first sack of the season on a key third-down – his fourth sack in his last four regular-season appearances and a stat Mangini would love to see increase as the season moves forward. What Mangini employed was a diverse scheme that kept the key playmakers on the Vikings team guessing, and that is something the Steelers will have to prepare for as they once again take the field without rusher Le’Veon Bell and receiver Martavis Bryant.
Niners Players to Watch
On defense, the Steelers will want to keep an eye on four players that had strong performances on Monday night: Bethea, Bowman, Tartt and Carradine. The sleeper that may hurt the Steelers the most is cornerback TremaineBrock. Brock sealed the win for the 49ers by intercepting Bridgewater late in the game on Monday and production has been down since the 2013 season when he had 35 tackles, 13 passes defensed and five interceptions for 82 yards and a touchdown, Brock is a wily veteran in the defensive backfield.
On offense, the Steelers will likely not see Reggie Bush but Hyde at running back. Hyde has an ability to get good speed while utilizing an elusiveness that includes the natural cut-back skills to stretch outside plays. Pittsburgh struggled at times along the sidelines in week one and with a lot of attention being placed on Kaepernick, the defense will need to play solid run defense up front. That isn’t to say that Boldin and tight end Verron Davis can’t hurt them with a young defensive secondary struggling with consistency, but Hyde has the potential to be a game-changer. Any lack of focus will once again bite Pittsburgh. They’ll be forced to play as a complete unit to contain the weapons the Niners will throw against them.
Surprisingly, after two seasons as contenders for their conference championships, San Francisco and Pittsburgh both look to be teams in a bit of transition. Sunday’s game at Heinz Field will put both squads to the test. In their last meeting on December 19, 2011, the Steelers lost by a score of 20-3. In their last five meetings, the Steelers have lost 3. While San Francisco leads the series 11-9-0, the Steelers have outscored the Niners, 404 to 391.