How teams, units, and players matchup in the NFL is what wins and loses football games. The Pittsburgh Steelers found that out last week, when their efforts to match up several defenders against Rob Gronkowski failed miserably, resulting in a 28-21 Week 1 loss. Examining these matchups not only give us an idea which team will have an advantage in a specific area of the game, but also which players need to step up to eliminate those advantages.
Here’s a few matchups that could determine the result of Pittsburgh’s game against the San Francisco 49ers tomorrow afternoon.
1. Colin Kaepernick vs. Steelers Edge Defenders
Perhaps no quarterback in the NFL relies on play action rollouts for his success like Kaepernick, who posted a quarterback rating of over 100 off of play fakes last year. The 49ers love to get him in space out on the edge, where he can survey targets at several levels, or use his legs to pick up positive chunks of yardage. That’s where the Steelers edge defenders come in, as they’ll need to contain Kaepernick’s rollouts on play action fakes, and not lose the edge by pinching inside.
All of Kaepernick’s rolls were to his right on Monday night, so if that trend were to continue as you’d expect for a right-handed passer, Arthur Moats and Bud Dupree would likely be charged with containing the rollout on Sunday. Jarvis Jones has struggled the most in these situations in the past, so should the 49ers ultimately elect to utilize both sides of the field, he and James Harrison will need to be aware as well.
2. Vernon Davis vs. Steelers Coverage
Tight ends just killed the Steelers last year, a trend that continued last week with Gronkowski and Scott Chandler. Pittsburgh struggles to matchup with the position in their secondary, an issue they will try to rectify tomorrow against Davis, one of the fastest tight ends in football. Davis doesn’t have the incredible hands or catch radius of Gronkowski, and he’s not as big, but the veteran tight end has wide receiver speed and quickness down the field. I expect Will Allen to draw him in coverage quite a bit, but I think Pittsburgh would also feel comfortable with a cornerback on Davis as well. The 49ers will move him around the formation to get him in advantageous situations, so the Steelers defensive communication must be much better than it was last week to avoid giving up easy completions.
3. Antonio Brown vs. 49ers Coverage
No receiver in football has been as dominant and unstoppable as Brown over the past two years (and counting), who the 49ers will look to combat tomorrow. San Francisco runs primarily zone-based schemes in the secondary, but it is a young unit with limited experience outside of veteran safety Antoine Bethea. Brown can exploit the Niners secondary for a big game on Sunday, as none of their corners are ideal matchups against the elite route runner.
4. Steelers Defensive Front Seven vs. 49ers OL
The 49ers offensive line is a nasty bunch that loves to mix it up in the run game. Their entire offense stems from being able to dominate teams in the trenches and run the football effectively. They’ll use all three downs to get ten yards, but they consistently put themselves in 3rd-and-short situations as a result of their success on first and second down. Talented running back Carlos Hyde is a big part of that, but the 49ers also use a ton of 12 and 13 personnel to put extra blockers on the field to open holes for Hyde. Given the Niners propensity to load the line of scrimmage, I expect to see the Steelers counter with plenty of eight-man boxes, rolling up Will Allen and/or Shamarko Thomas as often as possible.
The winners of this battle will likely win the game. That’s how vital it is to control the line of scrimmage against the 49ers run game, especially early on. Force San Francisco out of their comfort zone on offense, and make Kaepernick beat you down the field with his arm.
5. Steelers OL vs. 49ers Blitz Packages
As Alex Kozora pointed out in our scouting report of the San Francisco defense, safeties recorded two of the 49ers five sacks on Monday night, while inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman added another. The Niners love to pressure the A-gaps and will frequently send their safeties as blitzers, especially out of the dime defense they utilize so often. Nothing they do is incredibly complicated once they get there, so it will be more about Pittsburgh’s offensive line properly figuring out their assignments ahead of time, rather than adjusting on the fly to stunts and twists. Rookie safety Jaquiski Tartt is often the wild card of the bunch, moving around the formation and rushing from different spots. The Niners will also send delayed blitzes with safeties and linebackers, so Roethlisberger will need to make sure he is getting the ball out quickly to avoid hits from uncontested rushers.