When the 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers do battle on Monday night at Candlestick Park, two of the league’s top defenses will be showcased.
The Steelers have perennially featured one of the NFL’s most vaunted defensive units and the 49ers have joined that conversation this year under new coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff, which includes defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told Bay Area reporters that he’s been impressed with the way Harbaugh has been able to have such a dramatic impact on the 49ers in such a short time.
“The statistics speak for themselves,” Tomlin said in Wednesday’s conference call. “They’re first in the league versus the run, they haven’t given up a touchdown this year on the ground, they’re first in the NFL in red zone defense, they’re first in the league in turnover margin. They’re a tough nut to crack and we expect that.”
Running back Rashard Mendenhall is the latest candidate to have an opportunity to snap some of San Francisco’s impressive streaks. No individual runner has posted a 100-yard game against the 49ers in 35 contests. And as Tomlin pointed out, no one has scored a rushing touchdown against Fangio’s unit all season.
“We want to do that every week,” Mendenhall said. “No different. It’s a tougher defense and a tougher challenge, but we put that on ourselves to do every week.”
Mendenhall said he hasn’t seen much of a drop-off in the 49ers defense since it has been without captain Patrick Willis for most of the past two contests. He also offered some kind words for linebacker NaVorro Bowman, while saying there isn’t anything flashy behind the success of the 49ers defense.
“They’re just playing good ball, solid ball,” Mendenhall said. “They’re playing together and everybody’s in the right place and they’re making plays. Put those things together and you’re going to have a defense that’s playing well.”
The 49ers will likely have to wait until the end of the week to find out who will be under center for the Steelers on Monday night. Starter Ben Roethlisberger suffered a high ankle sprain last Thursday in Cleveland and did not practice on Wednesday.
“I guess I have to characterize him right now as questionable,” Tomlin said. “We’re kind of taking it day-to-day. He’s not going to do anything but rehab. Of course, a veteran guy like him – he can be ready to play on a limited number of snaps.”
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