Steelers-49ers Preview

Ben Roethlisberger has played through injuries before, but the

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback could find himself sidelined for

health reasons for the first time since 2009 at an inopportune

time.

In a tight AFC playoff race, the Steelers will be without

linebacker James Harrison when they visit the postseason-bound San

Francisco 49ers on Monday night.

Pittsburgh (10-3) has been idle since winning its fourth

straight with a 14-3 victory over Cleveland on Dec. 8. The 10-day

layoff due to a Thursday night game came at a good time for the

Steelers, who hope to get Roethlisberger on the field after he

sprained his left ankle against the Browns.

Roethlisberger left in the second quarter but returned in the

second half, finishing 16 of 21 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and

an interception. Veteran Charlie Batch relieved him and threw two

incomplete passes.

Roethlisberger declined to talk to reporters Wednesday before

walking out of the team’s facility with a noticeable limp. Coach

Mike Tomlin said the quarterback would be evaluated throughout the

week before a decision is made, but that Roethlisberger wouldn’t

need to participate in a full practice in order to play.

“He can be ready to play on a limited number of snaps,” Tomlin

said. “We’re going to take it day by day. We’re always going to be

optimistic when it comes to Ben.”

Roethlisberger, who played through a broken thumb earlier this

season, hasn’t missed a start due to injury since a concussion

sidelined him against Baltimore in 2009. He sat out the first four

games of the 2010 season after violating the NFL’s personal conduct

policy. The Steelers went 3-1 in his absence with Dennis Dixon and

Batch splitting the snaps.

“Those guys, they’re not Ben,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said.

“They’re great players, but Ben is something really special. So you

have to change your game to what they do best.”

While Roethlisberger’s status isn’t certain, that’s not the case

for Harrison, who got a one-game suspension from the NFL for his

helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy.

Though Harrison hasn’t been fined for a hit in more than a year,

he was considered a repeat offender under the 2011 League Policies

for Players manual, leading to the suspension.

Harrison appealed the decision, but the NFL denied it Friday,

citing his history of flagrant hits. This was his fifth on a

quarterback.

“We’re disappointed for James because we know how hard he’s

worked to play within the rules,” Tomlin said. “We accept the

judgment rendered by the league office and we’ll move forward.”

Harrison has eight sacks despite missing a month with a

fractured right orbital bone and dealing with persistent back

issues. The Steelers defense has given up 19 total points in the

last three games, and Pittsburgh managed to go 4-0 during his

earlier absence.

The 49ers (10-3) have clinched the NFC West, but have lost two

of three and have some injury concerns of their own as they try to

grab a first-round bye for the playoffs.

“You’re the hunted now, you’re not the hunter as much,” coach

Jim Harbaugh said. “You have a target on your back. That’s raised.

Not saying it wasn’t like that before, but that expectation, that

bar has raised.”

After a 26-0 win over St. Louis on Dec. 4, they fell 21-19 at

Arizona last Sunday. San Francisco had the ball inside the

Cardinals 10-yard three times in the second quarter and came away

with only field goals, then proceeded to blow a 12-point lead.

Alex Smith had one of his worst games of the season, completing

18 of 37 passes for 175 yards and no touchdowns.

Red-zone efficiency has been a problem all season for San

Francisco, which is converting a league-worst 35.6 percent of its

chances into touchdowns and has done so in just three of its last

19 trips.

Running back Frank Gore’s struggles down the stretch could be

worsening the red-zone difficulties. After averaging 126.8 yards in

five straight victories between Oct. 2 and Nov. 6, he hasn’t topped

88 yards in the five games since, averaging 54.4. Gore suffered a

knee injury in a win over the New York Giants on Nov. 13, and coach

Jim Harbaugh says his top rusher is “not 100 percent,” without

specifying further.

Gore had 72 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown run in the

third quarter last Sunday, but had only three carries in the second

half.

This is the first meeting between the teams since Pittsburgh’s

37-16 home victory in 2007. They last played in San Francisco in

2003, a game won 30-14 by the 49ers.