It took the playoff-bound 49ers, who have failed in the red zone more often than not lately, a trip to the Arizona desert Dec. 11 to finally get burned.
But it will be on the gridiron’s biggest stage tonight at Candlestick Park against the Pittsburgh Steelers where San Francisco will, once again, try to right its red-zone wrongs.
Last week’s 21-19 downer against the division-rival Cardinals marked more than San Francisco’s third defeat this season.
The 49ers, failing to score a touchdown in the first half for the fifth straight week, settled for four field goals, three of which were the result of the offense being stonewalled inside the Arizona 10-yard line.
The practice remedy that both coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Alex Smith provided during the week was simple: More red-zone reps.
“Know this — we’re trying to score touchdowns,” Harbaugh said. “It’s important to get points when you’re in the red zone. You have to have points because that leads to winning football.”
Smith, understandably, concurred with the assessment.
“No question [we] need to get better down there,” Smith said. “And part of that is just getting comfortable with it … getting reps. We’ve just got to execute better too, and we’ve left a lot of food on the table, so to speak.”
But a win today will mean much more than just getting back into the victory column.
With last week’s loss, San Francisco (10-3) is now clinging to its No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC. With the New Orleans Saints (11-3), who crushed the Vikings 42-20 on Sunday, peaking, the Niners need a win to keep pace. But the storied Pittsburgh franchise is one that is trying to exorcise some football demons of its own.
During last week’s 14-3 win against the Cleveland Browns, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sustained an ankle injury, and it is unknown if the two-time Super Bowl champ will be ready tonight.
But Roethlisberger aside, San Francisco will look to benefit from the absence of Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, who was issued a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet wallop on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy.
Harrison, one of Pittsburgh’s premier defensive players, leads his team in forced fumbles with two, while racking up eight sacks and 42 tackles this season.
But if the 49ers are in need of some bailing out tonight, they can certainly bank on the one thing that has been solid all season. Aside from being the No. 1 rated defense against the run, San Francisco remains a team that specializes in knocking the ball loose, collecting 13 fumble recoveries and 18 interceptions.
And if the Steelers’ two lost fumbles last week are of any indication, that’s good news for the faithful.
The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers lost, it was against a Harbaugh.
And if Ravens coach John Harbaugh — who is trying to hold on to a one-game lead over AFC East rival Pittsburgh — has anything to do with it, he will help little brother, Jim, prevail today.
That was confirmed last Monday when a reporter asked John if he would help the 49ers rookie head coach scout the Steelers. John, unintentionally amusing, answered that question with a question.
“Is there any NFL regulation on that?” John asked Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne.
Byrne’s response: “I think it’s fine for brothers to talk and exchange information.”
“I’m sure there will be some of that,” John said. “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.”
Jim, though admitting that he and his coaching sibling spoke, was tighter-lipped on the subject than a gag order.
49ers quarterback Alex Smith, while offering that such information could be useful, was weary of overstating any advantage.
“[John Harbaugh] knows them, plays them twice a year,” Smith said. “But you can turn on the film and you see it just as well. So, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still playing the Steelers and they’re a good football team.”
49ers (10-3) vs. Steelers (10-3)
WHEN: Monday, 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Candlestick Park
RADIO: KNBR (680 AM), KSAN (107.7 FM)