Sibling help: Harbaugh talks Steelers with brother
AP Sports Writer
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Before 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh started his preparation for Steelers week, he had an important phone call to make to learn the ins and outs of how to beat Pittsburgh: to Baltimore coach and big brother, John.
The Ravens have won both of their meetings this season against the Steelers in what has evolved into one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries. And Monday night’s matchup between San Francisco and Pittsburgh has plenty of meaning to Baltimore, which is tied with the Steelers atop the AFC North standings and trying to win the division.
“I’m sure they talk about brotherly things when they talk,” joked Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin.
Whether it’s a game-planning perk for Jim Harbaugh because of his family connection is unclear. Everybody knows the Harbaugh brothers talk just about every week anyway, aside maybe from the lead up to their history-making Thanksgiving face off.
Jim Harbaugh downplayed the conversation Thursday.
“Just the usual. We did speak earlier this week,” he said. “We talked about (the Steelers). We talked about last week’s game, talked about this week’s game as we often do.”
John Harbaugh asked a team official to make sure he was allowed to help his brother with any insight.
“I’m sure there will be some of that,” John Harbaugh said. “You know, coaches, really, the truth is, coaches do that around the league based on best interest and things like that. I know for a fact a lot of coaches have spent a lot of time talking about us before they play us, so I’m sure we’ll try to help him in some way if we can.”
The 49ers could use the boost. They have something to prove in prime time.
San Francisco had fits protecting quarterback Alex Smith in an embarrassing Thanksgiving flop at Baltimore and hardly wants a repeat show against another top team from the AFC when the Steelers come to Candlestick Park on Monday night.
Now, the Niners offense must prepare for constant pressure from Pittsburgh’s top-ranked pass defense – and it probably won’t be all that different from the attacking mentality Baltimore brought on every snap.
If the offensive line continues to give up so many sacks, it could be another long night on the NFL’s big stage for the NFC West champion 49ers (10-3). They are struggling to convert in the red zone.
“We’ve left a lot of food on the table,” said Smith, sacked 18 times over the past three games. “You’d like to form an identity.”
This marks the fourth time in Monday Night Football history that two teams face off with 10 victories and a winning percentage of at least .750 – and San Francisco has played in all of them, the last on Dec. 15, 1997, with the 12-2 49ers against the 11-3 Broncos.
The 49ers have their sights set on a first-round bye, but they can’t afford another slip up to make sure it happens.
Pittsburgh is still playing to get to the postseason.
“For us, it’s about winning ballgames, and we’re still fighting for a playoff spot somewhere,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “So, all we have to do is just worry about San Fran. As far as the records and stuff, that’s irrelevant to me.”
San Francisco is tied with New Orleans for the second-best record in the NFC behind unbeaten and defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay. The 49ers have the edge over the Saints in tiebreakers based on conference record.
They know full well everybody is out to beat them after this season’s resurgence under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.
“That’s part of the deal, no question about it,” Harbaugh said. “Our team’s won the division. You’re the hunted now, you’re not the hunter as much. You’ve got a target on your back. People want to beat you. Not saying it wasn’t like that before, but that expectation, that bar has raised. We’re in a position that we’re in – we’ve got three games left and we control our destiny in terms of making the playoffs, positioning, momentum, the best it can possibly be for us.”
They might be facing a Steelers offense playing without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been in a walking boot trying to heal his sprained left ankle. Pittsburgh also is likely to be without linebacker James Harrison, who is set to serve a one-game suspension for a helmet to facemask hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy on Dec. 8. Harrison appealed.
Tomlin realizes the challenge whether Big Ben is behind center or not. He finds no need to get philosophical about what he has seen from afar from the 49ers in their turnaround season, saying, “they need no endorsement from me.”
“The statistics speak for themselves,” Tomlin said. “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 who will try to crack that defense, which could be missing star linebacker Patrick Willis for the second straight week because of a right hamstring injury. Mendenhall knows San Francisco has plenty of capable fill-ins for Willis, along with fellow linebacker standout NaVorro Bowman.
The 49ers have gone 35 straight games without allowing a 100-yard runner and they haven’t surrendered a rushing touchdown this year.
“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. … It’s a tougher defense and a tougher challenge, but we put that on ourselves to do every week.”
Mendenhall expects Roethlisberger to do everything in his power to play Monday. He has already played through a sprained left foot and a fractured right thumb this season.
Big Ben might play even if it’s a game-day decision and he hasn’t practiced. Tomlin is confident a veteran with his experience would be fine to do so.
“If he can play he will. The only way he won’t is if he can’t,” Mendenhall said.
Harbaugh expects each player on his team to take responsibility for his role and any mistakes made in a 21-19 loss at Arizona last Sunday.
“You man up. With broad shoulders, you take accountability,” Harbaugh said. “You’re rushing to take the accountability. Find each and every way to improve. Not just coming in and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to try to do better.’ Find those ways and attack them.”
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh and David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this story.
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