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Steelers-49ers pregame stretch

December 19, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh at San Francisco

8:30 p.m. tonight, ESPN

Weather – or not?: The forecast calls for clear skies and a low of 44, which is a pretty good draw for San Francisco in December. It’s also about the best conditions (short of a dome) LaMarr Woodley could get this late in the season to give his injured hammy a go.

Announcers: Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden

Annoyance factor: The MNF telecasts this year have been a train wreck. Jaws, who demonstrates each week on “NFL Matchup” that he is truly one of the smartest guys analyzing football, somehow devolves on Monday nights, going way over the top in trying to turn a football game into a soap opera. (In a recent magazine interview, he admitted he scripts parts of his in-game commentary). Gruden, aka “this guy,” used to be a decent analyst burdened with some annoying speech patterns, but now he’s simply lost his mind with the hyperbole. When every week you hear him talking about “this guy” or “that guy” being the “best,” the term “best” loses its connotation. Not that it matters with everything else going on, but Tirico remains smart and smooth if just a little too preachy.

Referee: Walt Coleman

Competence factor: Coleman’s reputation is that of an adequate and consistent white hat, but past performance seems to matter little in this disastrous year for NFL officials. We’ve noted several of Ed Hochuli’s slips and in Week 14 we saw highly thought of referees Mike Carey and John Parry absolutely butcher key calls in big games. Meanwhile, Jeff Triplette’s crew called two of the worst roughing-the-passer penalties in the history of the league in the Pats-Skins game.

Blogger’s note: We write about officiating (and especially bad officiating) because we’re interested in it. But all of our discussion about it should be framed in this context: We do not believe officials EVER should be blamed for deciding a game. Officiating is just another human element in the game. Officials make mistakes, just like players and coaches make mistakes. Officiating (and officiating mistakes) should be openly discussed with a goal of improving the game as a whole (and helping us understand it better as fans). We think Mike Pereira had the NFL heading in that direction before he retired. We’re worried the momentum from that initiative is fading. A climate where officiating mistakes are either ignored or groused about endlessly, with no action being taken to fix them, is detrimental to the game.

The line: San Francisco -3

Smarts say: Lines on this game had been hard to come by, with many outlets waiting until more is known about Ben Roethlisberger’s status. There was an early Niners -1.5 from the Las Vegas Hilton, but finally on Saturday all the major players went with Niners -3. Does that mean Vegas is skeptical about Roethlisberger’s ability to play effectively? We think it does. The professional gamblers who play the Hilton’s Supercontest (who had a fantastic Week 15 with their top six consensus picks covering) are evenly split on this game. The over/under of 37.5 is one of the year’s lowest and would result in something like 20-17 San Francisco.

Key matchup: Steelers WR Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown vs. 49ers S Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner

Because: Even if Roethlisberger plays in this game, he certainly won’t be the rambling, scrambling big-play machine we’re used to seeing. More likely, he’ll throw a lot of three-step drop patterns and work out of the pistol or shotgun with quick throws, taking an occasional shot downfield to try and keep things honest. Such a game plan requires the Steelers big play receivers to make something happen with their legs after they catch the football. Goldson and Whitner will be primarily responsible for keeping Wallace and Brown in front of the 49ers defense all night.

Quick hits:

+ Baltimore’s loss Sunday night at San Diego puts the Steelers in the driver’s seat as far as the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC. If the Steelers win out, the only team who could tie them at 13-3 is the Patriots, and, of course, Pittsburgh owns a head-to-head tiebreaker over New England.

+ The Jets are in the driver’s seat for the No. 6 spot, holding the “strength of victory” tiebreaker over the Bengals right now. The Jets, however, have a tough draw in the final two weeks against the cross-city Giant and at the suddenly dangerous Dolphins.

+ With Maurkice Pouncey (who’s moving ominously from “injury prone” territory toward “fragile”) out again, it appears it will be Trai Essex getting the start at left guard, instead of Chris Kemoeatu, who played there against Cleveland when Pouncey went down. Kemoeatu was, of course, hit with three critical penalties in that game. If history is teaches us anything about the Steelers offensive line, it’s that Kemoeatu will wind up in the game anyway because of another injury.

The pick: If we were confident that LaMarr Woodley was completely healthy for this game, we’d take the Steelers here, but he isn’t and we can’t. Not without James Harrison, not with Ben Roethlisberger playing on one leg against THAT defense behind THAT offensive line, not with Lawrence Timmons struggling to cover tight ends the way he has been, not with Troy Polamalu having a perfectly ordinary season.…San Francisco 21-20.

Last week: We liked the Steelers to win but the Browns to cover, which was right on the button and leaves us at 9-4 straight up and an impressive 8-5 vs. the spread.

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