49ers shine vs. Steelers through pair of blackouts | NevadaAppeal.com
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49ers shine vs. Steelers through pair of blackouts

JANIE McCAULEY
AP Sports Writer

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) – First, Jim Harbaugh campaigned to bring Alex Smith back for another season in San Francisco. Now, he’s pushing for his quarterback to make the Pro Bowl.

The 49ers coach is praising his comeback QB as one of the top three in the NFC along with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees of New Orleans – and Harbaugh said Tuesday he considers the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick to be the team’s long-term answer behind center.

And everybody knows Harbaugh has plenty of pull when it comes to the roster considering he has pulled off such a remarkable resurgence for this franchise in a matter of months.

While Harbaugh isn’t about to start getting into statement games or whether his Niners now have elite NFL status, Monday night’s commanding 20-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers showed just how many stars San Francisco has on both sides of the ball.

Smith remained poised in prime time only three games after he got sacked nine times in a flop at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. He was unfazed when Candlestick Park went dark not once but twice to interrupt Monday’s game on the big stage, delaying kickoff and then stopping play early in the second quarter.

“No question, lights out, no pun intended,” Smith said of the overall performance.

Smith hardly has the gaudy passing numbers or touchdowns of some of his fellow quarterbacks – his 2,752 yards passing rank ninth in the NFC, while his 16 touchdown completions are good for eighth and he also has an NFL-high 39 sacks. Yet Harbaugh points to many other key statistics that go unnoticed but have helped NFC West-champion San Francisco (11-3) return to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Most notably, Smith takes care of the football.

The 27-year-old Smith, who rejoined the 49ers this summer as a free agent on a $4.9 million, one-year deal, owns a 61.4 completion percentage that’s sixth in the NFC and has the fewest interceptions with five.

“That’s the low-hanging fruit,” Harbaugh said. “Just go straight to the yardage line or the touchdown-passes line. I think that people that understand football understand that there’s a lot more that goes into the job of a quarterback than those statistics.”

Smith avoided being sacked Monday night after being taken down 18 times in the previous three games.

“He’s done a marvelous job of taking care of the football and he’s playing championship football,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday. “I really think he’s doing great and if he can get in the Pro Bowl, great. There’s a lot of guys out there that have thrown for a million yards that everybody gets enamored with. But, to me, it’s all about doing things that help you win and play great football. And Alex is doing just that.”

Four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, a star defender making his case for another Pro Bowl nod, hopes to return for Saturday’s game at Seattle after missing the last two games with an injured right hamstring. Willis said he has made significant progress in his recovery.

Lately, he has been impressed just watching his defensive teammates while he returns to full strength.

“It was impressive. I tell our defensive guys all the time that I’m their biggest fan out there,” Willis said. “As much as I would love to be out there participating, I also understand I want to be healthy, I want to be 100 percent.”

Harbaugh could make a case for a handful of his defenders going to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu on Jan. 29. He complimented menacing defensive tackle Justin Smith as the team “MVP.”

San Francisco hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown this season – the first team in NFL history to accomplish the feat through 14 games – and has a 36-game streak of not giving up 100 yards on the ground.

The 49ers also lead the NFL in turnover differential. They have forced 35 turnovers while committing only 10, with five interceptions and five lost fumbles.

Rookie Aldon Smith is tied for fifth in the NFL with 13 sacks, while second-year linebacker NaVorro Bowman is seventh in the NFL with 121 tackles. And don’t forget cornerback Carlos Rogers, who made one of his six interceptions with a pick of Ben Roethlisberger’s pass on the opening series of the game Monday. Rogers and teammate Dashon Goldson are among three players tied for fourth in the NFL with six picks.

“For us to step up on prime time, Monday night, and play a team like this, it lets us know what we can do,” Rogers said. “We’ve got to continue to do that, especially coming into December and January. Like I told guys, Green Bay started off slow last year but they got hot toward the end and it took them on to the championship. In order to extend our time in the playoffs we’ve got to win games like this.”

Notes: Harbaugh provided no update on WR Ted Ginn Jr.’s ankle injury. It’s not known which ankle he injured while returning the second-half kickoff. … LT Joe Staley was kicked in one of his shins in the fourth quarter but said he came out as a precaution only. “I’m totally good,” he said.