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49ers defense among NFL's elite units; offense needs work

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The matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers could've been a preview for Super Bowl XLVI with both teams residing near the top of their respective conferences. After watching the 49ers come away with an impressive 20-3 win, here is what I learned Monday night:

1. It's time to consider the 49ers defense as one of the NFL's best. Although San Francisco leads the league in scoring defense, the unit is rarely mentioned as one of the NFL's top defenses. However, after witnessing its suffocation of the Steelers, it is time the 49ers received their just due. The 49ers defense won the battle of heavyweights by outmuscling their opponents at the point of attack.

Aldon Smith and Justin Smith led the charge by routinely blowing past blockers on an assortment of twists, and their ability to create disruption without additional rushers allowed the 49ers to sit in some form of two-deep coverage for most of the game. With the Steelers unable to connect on deep shots, the 49ers were able to eventually shrink the field and force Ben Roethlisberger to settle for short throws in front of coverage. Great defense requires discipline, sound execution and supreme effort, and the 49ers' unit gets high marks in each of those areas.

2. Alex Smith needs to raise his game for the 49ers to be serious contenders. This will remain a prevalent theme in San Francisco until Smith proves capable of winning games on the strength of his right arm. While he has been consistent and effective in the 49ers' ball-control offense to date, he continues to miss open receivers on vertical routes and remains suspect against the blitz. His inability to connect on deep throws allows opponents to condense the field with tight coverage, and the 49ers will find it increasingly difficult to move the ball consistently without the assistance of the big play. With the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints capable of scoring 30-plus points against the NFL's elite, the thought of turning postseason games into low-scoring affairs is highly unlikely. That's why it is imperative for Smith to grow from game manager to playmaker down the stretch.

3. The 49ers' red-zone woes could limit their success in the postseason. Despite converting on two of three red-zone chances against the Steelers, the 49ers' woes inside the 20-yard line remain a major concern heading down the stretch. The offense repeatedly bogs down on the cusp of the end zone and its inability to score touchdowns could prove costly in matchups against the NFC's top contenders -- Green Bay and New Orleans. Part of the 49ers' woes should be attributed to their inability to run out of their tight formations. Teams are loading the box with nine defenders, and Frank Gore is unable to find creases between the tackles. When the 49ers' opt to open up the formation or use play-action passes, Smith has been unable to hit open receivers on vertical throws. Although the accumulation of field goals has enabled the 49ers to win 11 games on the strength of their defense, they must find a way to put the ball in the paint consistently to become a factor in the postseason.

4. Aldon Smith will be the league's next great pass rusher. It's unusual to heap so much praise on a first-year player, but Smith is worthy of that praise following a sensational performance against the Steelers. He is nearly impossible to block off the edge due to his athleticism and explosiveness. He has the ability to run past blockers on speed rushes or attack them down the middle with his underrated power.

What has been most impressive about his rapid development as an edge rusher is his ability to thrive from an upright position. At the University of Missouri, he spent all of his time playing as a defensive end with his hand in the dirt, but he has adjusted quickly to seeing the game from a different viewpoint while retaining the speed and explosiveness that made him a coveted prospect in the draft. With few rushers possessing his unique combination of athleticism and relentlessness, Smith could become the standard at the position in a few years.

5. Carlos Rogers should earn his first Pro Bowl nod this season. The seventh-year pro has been terrific in coverage this season and he continued to shine against the Steelers. He maintained tight coverage on his assigned receiver for most of the game, and came up with a timely pick on the Steelers' first possession by cleverly undercutting a post route near the end zone. Rogers also impressed as the slot corner in the 49ers' sub-package against the Steelers' spread formations. While he was rarely challenged on Monday night, his ability to lock down slot receivers could be difference maker in pivotal matchups in the postseason.

6. Roethlisberger is slightly off his game with the gimpy ankle. Robbed of his mobility within the pocket, Roethlisberger was uncharacteristically off with his throws. He repeatedly missed open receivers over the middle of the field, and the 49ers were able to pick off three of his errant tosses. In addition, he was unable to buy additional time in the pocket or produce the improvisational plays that typically result in big gains. The Steelers offense has feasted on his broken plays throughout the years, but a hobbled Roethlisberger is unable to deliver at this time.

7. If you're going to stop the Steelers, you must have a plan for handling their bunch and empty formations. There isn't a team in the NFL that does a better job of exploiting opponents with various forms of cluster formations out of a variety of personnel groupings than the Steelers. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians routinely aligns three receivers in close proximity to create potential picks against man coverage, and the flawless execution of the various routes out of the package frequently leads to big plays. In watching the Steelers jump into the formation repeatedly against the 49ers, I'm amazed at how many times one or two receivers would wind up uncovered. This also occurred repeatedly in their empty formations when they trotted three or four receivers on a side, and left Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown alone on the backside.

The utilization of quick routes out of the formation places an immense amount of pressure on defenders to make tackles against the Steelers' most dangerous receivers in space. With few teams possessing the sure tacklers in the back end, it is easy to see how Pittsburgh generates big plays out of the package. To the 49ers' credit, they did an exceptional job containing Wallace and Brown in space, but there was a sense that the Steelers were one missed tackle away from making a game-changing play for most of the game.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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