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San Francisco 49ers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Preview and Prediction

Carlos Hyde

Carlos Hyde

If there's something even more distressing than the porous Pittsburgh Steelers' secondary that came out of their 28-21 loss to New England on Sept. 10, it might be the way they handled the defeat.

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The focus of the Steelers after the game seemed to be more with alleged tampered headsets than their own play. Even if this caused a breakdown in the secondary when Tom Brady connected with Rob Gronkowski for the first touchdown of the game, it still doesn't excuse safety Robert Golden or cornerback Antwon Blake for not being able to tackle Gronkowski at the five-yard line.

To be fair, when Ben Roethlisberger was talking about "Headsetgate" last Tuesday, he was responding to questions in a radio interview, not bringing up the topic himself. The Steelers didn't file a formal complaint and head coach Mike Tomlin said the matter was behind the team during his weekly press conference.

Still, it seems the Patriots have gotten into the Steelers' heads. When that happens, you've already lost.

It makes one think that you must deceive your opposition, rather than beat them. And so, when simple running plays net 33 yards on three attempts in the opening drive, instead of continuing this strategy wide receiver Antonio Brown was asked to pass and was instead sacked, realistically preventing hope for a touchdown.

The team of Chuck Noll had become very Sam Wyche.

Speaking of coaching, the San Francisco 49ers' head coach, Jim Tomsula, is from Homestead, Pa., which borders the city of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River. One note on Tomsula is he sent a message of congratulations to the retirement party of Terry Shields, the longtime assistant sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and fellow Homestead native, last month.

Such an act shows a refreshing change at the top for the 49ers from the polarizing Jim Harbaugh and could help build a more comfortable and productive environment for the team.

San Francisco at Pittsburgh

Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)

TV Channel: FOX (Most of Western US save for Arizona & New Mexico, Western Pennsylvania and Ohio Valley plus)

Spread: Steelers -5.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Will the Steelers' secondary step up?

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Newcomer Brandon Boykin is projected to see more playing time as the Steelers' third cornerback after a game in which Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes and was able to control the ball through the air so thoroughly nobody even noticed the Steelers held the Patriots to 3.3 yards per rushing attempt.

Boykin didn't play against New England, nor did safety Sharmarko Thomas, who was replaced by Will Allen. Right cornerback Cortez Allen's starting position was taken away by Blake against the Patriots, but now the Steelers' depth chart lists Allen back as the starter.

What alarmed many onlookers is that while Tomlin had stated the Steelers would try to jam tight end Rob Gronkowski at the line before the game, the Woodland Hills High School product instead was often free at the line, most famously on his first touchdown reception where Brady hurried the snap count to make sure he could throw to him.

Enter veteran San Francisco's Vernon Davis, like Gronkowski one of the best pass-catching tight ends in football. Will the Steelers put left inside linebacker Ryan Shazier on Davis to keep him at bay? If they do, how will that impact the Steelers' run defense?  

2. Can DeAngelo Williams continue his success against the 49ers' tough run defense?

Adrian Peterson managed only 31 yards on 10 carries Monday night against San Francisco. Williams, who will likely be starting his last game before Le'Veon Bell returns from a two-game suspension, rushed for 127 yards on 21 carries against the Patriots.

The 49ers' run defense was one of the worst in the NFL last year but may have been rejuvenated with the return of All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, as well as defensive end Glenn Dorsey and nose tackle Ian Williams from injuries. The 49ers' four-game losing streak at the end of 2014 coincided with the loss of Williams.

3. What weapon will the 49ers use?

Carlos Hyde shocked the football world with a 168-yard rushing performance against Minnesota in his first game as San Francisco's full-time starting running back following the departure of Frank Gore to Indianapolis. Throw in 41 yards scrambling from Colin Kaepernick and 21 more yards from the backup running backs and not only did the 49ers rush for more yards than they threw (230-165) but they rushed for more yards than any team in the NFL last week.

Much has been made of Kaepernick's "happy feet," and a strong running game will allow a team to have more of a structured passing game.

So do the 49ers try to play more ball control with their new star to keep possessions away from Ben Roethlisberger & Co., or do they try to exploit the Steelers' secondary with an inconsistent quarterback?

Final Analysis

There isn't much to like about the Steelers' defense. But wouldn't you rather have Roethlisberger instead of Kaepernick?

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Prediction: Pittsburgh 24, San Francisco 21

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.