Delanie Walker didn’t beat around the bush. He knows what the 49ers need to improve on as they gear up for their first postseason appearance in nine years: their red zone offense.
Walker confronted those questions head on this week, as the 49ers (10-3) prepare for Monday night’s showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick Park.
“We practice hard every week for the red zone,” Walker said. “We just get in the game and for some reason it just doesn’t fall through. Either the defense has a good scheme for us or we just don’t execute the play right. Sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot, so this week we got to make sure to do everything possible to get our assignments right and get the ball in the end zone.”
In recent weeks, it’s been common to see the ball go through the uprights, as the 49ers have settled for field goals from David Akers. The 49ers broached the Arizona 20-yard line three times in last week’s contest, but all three drives resulted in Akers field goals.
But as Alex Smith would attest, no one within the 49ers huddle is panicking. With a few extra red zone reps in practice this week, the offense is confident it will be able to turn things around.
“Yeah, no question we need to get better down there,” the 49ers quarterback said. “And part of that is just getting comfortable with it, getting reps. One of those things, kind of time on task type of deal I think. We’ve just got to execute better too, and we’ve left a lot of food on the table, so to speak.”
Things will only get harder this week, as the 49ers prep to face a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that ranks second in league in points allowed (15.2).
Jim Harbaugh noted there are some similarities with Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme. The 49ers coach compared it to the system the Cardinals used last week. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau – widely regarded as one of the sharpest defensive minds in the game – mentored Arizona defensive coordinator Ray Horton for three seasons in Pittsburgh.
Still, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman pointed out a key difference between the two teams: experience. Pittsburgh (10-3) is littered with players like Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, who have played within the same scheme for several seasons.
“Most of the defense has been in the system for at least five or six years,” said 49ers tight end Justin Peelle, a veteran of 10 years. “Those guys have played well together. It’s a good measuring stick and kind of lets us know where we are heading into January.”
Peelle, who has enjoyed his role as a blocking tight end this year, also believes the 49ers offense is lucky to face such a tough opposition every day in practice. The only team with a better scoring defense than Pittsburgh is the 49ers, who are giving up an average of 14.0 points per game.
Playing day in and day out against outside linebackers like Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith and linemen like Justin Smith and Ray McDonald only helps Peelle. Not to mention it leads to some healthy locker room banter.
“It’s been a blast,” Peelle said. “Justin and Parys and all those guys really keep me going. I’m practicing against one of the top defenses in the NFL. It keeps you sharp.”
Practice is one thing. Playing a quality team like Pittsburgh on “Monday Night Football” is another.
Whereas the Steelers have built a reputation of having a staunch run defense throughout the years, it’s their pass defense which is leading the way this season. Pittsburgh gives up an average of just 179.1 yards per game through the air, which is the top mark in the NFL.
And while the play-making Polamalu certainly has a lot to do with it, Pittsburgh’s cornerbacks Ike Taylor and William Gay have also been disruptive forces in the secondary.
“They’re very physical and they’re very good cover guys,” Roman said. “It’s obvious that they put their study time in. They do a very nice job of reading splits and just covering guys up and down the field and across the field.”
Stiff as the test may be, the 49ers are looking forward to playing under the lights on the stage of “Monday Night Football.” The 49ers are also trying to keep a grasp on the No. 2 seed in the NFC, with New Orleans (10-3) right on their heels.
For once, seventh-year running back Frank Gore is answering questions about the postseason.
“We would love to get (a bye) to rest our bodies and as a team be fresh and ready for that second round,” Frank Gore said.