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49ers travel to Pittsburgh in battle of unbeatens

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers have taken very different paths to their 2-0 starts. The Steelers look to continue their dominance while the 49ers hope for their first convincing win of the year as the teams meet at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Under first-year coach Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh has won each of its first two games by at least 20 points. The Steelers haven't started 3-0 since 1992 -- their first year under coach Bill Cowher, who resigned in January.

San Francisco, meanwhile, is poised to record its first 3-0 start since 1998 thanks to close wins in the first two weeks. The 49ers have won their first two games by a combined four points.

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They could struggle to pull off another dramatic win against the Steelers, who have allowed only 10 points this year -- 10 fewer than any other team. Pittsburgh is ranked third in total defense, holding opponents to just 222.0 yards per game.

The Steelers haven't blown out opponents with just their defense, however. Pittsburgh is also in the league's top five with 60 total points and 195.0 rushing yards per game.

Running back Willie Parker has carried most of that load, ranking third in the league with 235 yards on the ground. He had 126 and a touchdown in Pittsburgh's 26-3 win over Buffalo on Sunday.

"He challenged himself to bounce back because he ran for 100 yards last week but he wasn't pleased with his performance," Tomlin said of Parker, who has three straight 100-yard rushing games dating back to last season's finale. "He came back this week and read blocks and had nice (running) tracks and did a good job of running the ball and taking care of it."

The Steelers improved to 14-1 when Parker reaches the century mark.

"Willie opens it up for us when he has 100-yard games," wide receiver Nate Washington said. "Teams have to try to stack the box (to slow Parker), but when we're making plays as receivers they have to respect us, so they can't stack the box anymore."

With opponents guarding against the run, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has gotten off to a strong start with five TD passes and one interception. Last season, following a motorcycle crash and an appendectomy, he had five interceptions and no touchdowns through two games -- both losses.

While Pittsburgh already appears to be in midseason form, San Francisco is lucky to be undefeated after squeaking out a 20-17 win over Arizona in its season opener Sept. 10, and a 17-16 victory in St. Louis last Sunday.

The 49ers struggled offensively for most of the game but took advantage of a muffed punt return by St. Louis to set up a go-ahead 40-yard field goal by Joe Nedney with 3:23 remaining. St. Louis missed a 56-yard field goal with less than a minute left to secure San Francisco's third straight win by three points or fewer, dating back to last season.

"It was a week of inconsistency again," coach Mike Nolan said. "Just like I said last week, it's nice to come away from a win with things to work on."

Defensive tackle Bryant Young, who has won a Super Bowl and endured a two-win season during his 14-year tenure with the Niners, knows that even ugly wins can be valuable. San Francisco has made the playoffs each of the last seven times it has been 2-0.

"We haven't been in this position in a long time," Young said. "We can't let our guards down. In the two wins we have, we didn't play our best football all around, (but) this league, it's something different now. Sometimes you're going to win ugly."

Running back Frank Gore, who set a franchise record with 1,695 yards rushing last season, had a 43-yard touchdown run in Sunday's third quarter, but has just 136 yards through two games.

"There were yards left on the field," Nolan said Sunday. "As good as Frank is, there's a couple of runs that if he could have had back, he'd still be running."

Gore missed Wednesday's practice to be in Miami for his mother's funeral, but he's expected to be back with the team on Thursday. The 49ers lost rookie LB Manny Lawson for the season on Thursday when he tore an ACL in practice.

Pittsburgh outside linebacker James Harrison has been cleared to play despite being carried off the field on a stretcher last weekend. Tomlin said Harrison was diagnosed with a stiff neck and can play Sunday.

The 49ers have won four of their last five games against the Steelers, including two victories in Pittsburgh, where they haven't lost since Sept. 13, 1987.

The Steelers, meanwhile, have won 11 of their last 12 interconference games since the beginning of the 2004 season.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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