A championship team has to meet all the challenges, and the 49ers met a big one by getting out of their comfort zone Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 49ers had been playing their usual conservative game — throwing short passes, running Frank Gore, kicking field goals — instead of going boldly for touchdowns and relying on their defense and special teams.
That had worked in a strange first half, because David Akers had kicked two field goals, Andy Lee had consistently backed up the Steelers within their own 10-yard line with his punts and the defense had intercepted Ben Roethlisberger twice. It seemed more like a heavyweight fight than a football game, with both teams slugging it out.
But in the third quarter, the Steelers finally got on the board with a 51-yard field goal, and a light seemed to go on in the head of offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who called some imaginative plays on the next drive.
Suddenly, Alex Smith was rolling out and throwing downfield, hitting Vernon Davis for two big gains, the second one almost a touchdown. The call was that Davis had gone out at the 1-yard line before he leaped into the end zone. Jim Harbaugh challenged it, but the officials could not find conclusive proof to overturn it.
No matter. The Steelers concentrated their defense in the middle, obviously expecting a Gore run, but Smith rolled out to the right. Meanwhile, Davis faked a block, then rolled into the end zone, all by himself, an easy target for Smith’s pass.
It was a great call because Roman had anticipated the great pursuit of the Steelers defenders and turned it against them, as they took themselves out of the play.
Suddenly, it was 13-3, and all the air seemed to go out of the Steelers’ balloon. They have not played well on the road this year, their quarterback had practiced only one day since their last game because of an ankle sprain and he was under increasing pressure from the 49ers’ pass rush, especially rookie Aldon Smith and the underrated veteran Justin Smith, who just keeps going from the first minute to the last.
Once again, it was Justin Smith who knocked a ball loose, this time from Roethlisberger. The 49ers recovered and scored another touchdown after an unusual officiating call. It appeared they’d have to settle for still another Akers field goal, but a Steelers lineman was called for climbing on a teammate’s back to try (unsuccessfully) to block Akers’ field goal.
That gave the 49ers an automatic first down, so they were able to get into the end zone, a welcome relief after their red-zone problems of recent weeks.
The win was a nice turnaround after the 49ers’ disappointing loss to the Arizona Cardinals the previous week and a very important one, because it kept them in the No. 2 playoff spot in the NFC, tied with the New Orleans Saints at 11-3, but with the tiebreaker — a better conference record.
The 49ers’ defense is unrelenting and keeps them in every game. Their offense has only occasionally risen to the challenge, but it finally did last night, an encouraging sign for the future.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.