Kovacevic: Steelers stumble, fumble in dark
SAN FRANCISCO — The drama was thick Monday night at Candlestick Park, and this was well before the paying customers realized they'd need to light their own candles to take in the craziness to come.
Grab a match. Here we go ...
It's 6:15 p.m. Pittsburgh time, and Ben Roethlisberger's every step in early warmups is scrutinized to monitor the planet's most prominent high left ankle sprain. It's soon as painful to watch as it appears to execute. Roethlisberger makes like a marble statue as he tosses 7-yard softies with a couple of the Steelers' coaches. He redefines stiffness in trying three-step drops. And he cringes as he's ushered off, just four minutes after he began.
Yep, he's ready to go, coach. This one's going to be all on you, Mike Tomlin, for better or worse.
At 7 p.m., the Steelers' inactive list omits Roethlisberger, and the Nation emits a sigh. Never mind that being inactive is the only cure for the dreaded high ankle sprain. Never mind that, even if the ankle holds up, he'll be a stationary target for an aggressive San Francisco defense. This game is all that matters, apparently, to Tomlin and all concerned.
At 8:30 p.m., 10 minutes before kickoff, the stadium blacks out, representing the catastrophe of the century. At least it sounds that way to those tuning in ESPN's Chris Berman hyperbolically comparing a blown transformer to the 1989 World Series earthquake here that, you know, collapsed the Bay Bridge.
At 9 p.m., with the lights back, the cosmos settled and kickoff delayed a mere 20 minutes, Roethlisberger looks cool but cautious in moving the ball quickly, much the same approach adopted for the ankle-impaired Tennessee victory two months ago.
At 9:12 p.m., Roethlisberger plants poorly and underthrows even worse into the end zone for an interception.
At 9:23 p.m., another interception, this one overthrown.
At 9:43 p.m., as if by merciful intervention, the stadium blacks out a second time. Although Berman presumably is under a table somewhere, the fans have fun with it, flash bulbs popping everywhere. What had been a fine NFL matchup of 10-3 teams is now a freak show.
At 9:48 p.m., just as it was becoming moderately reasonable to accuse the 49ers of trying to fortify the case for a new stadium in nearby Santa Clara, a fan runs onto the field. The police somehow put him down quickly, though not before Roethlisberger is overheard joking, "Where's James Harrison when you need him?"
At 9:50 p.m., Harrison is exactly where Roger Goodell wants him, back on his couch in Pittsburgh, having a good laugh: "If I can't play then can't nobody play," he tweets. "Lights out!"
At 9:52 p.m., in a remarkable coincidence, the ESPN broadcast shows an artist's rendering of the dreamy new stadium in Santa Clara. Complete with transformers that don't explode into flames.
At 9:58 p.m., the lights are back again. Some, anyway. One bank, right at midfield, has only seven of its 60 bulbs turned on.
At 10:33 p.m., the Steelers stall out on a late drive and trail, 6-0, even as Roethlisberger begins to act more like himself, holding the ball, squirting away from rushers and looking deep for Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.
At 11:10 p.m., Roethlisberger finds his stride, moving fluidly before finding Heath Miller with a pump-fake and a strike for 39 yards to midfield. No more limp, no more condensed playbook.
At 11:17 p.m., alas, this drive falls short, too, as Roethlisberger's back-shoulder pass to Brown is askew enough to force the Steelers to settle for a field goal.
At 11:27 p.m., the 49ers finally find the end zone after making the Steelers' defense look terribly ordinary. Might be a fact of life anymore, injuries or otherwise.
At 11:44 p.m., speaking of injuries, LaMarr Woodley exits again because of his hamstring. For all the fuss over whether the Steelers should play Roethlisberger, why so little over a guy who was on a player-of-the-year course before getting hurt?
At 11:48 p.m., Roethlisberger is pile-driven by Aldon Smith, the fumble is recovered by Justin Smith, and Roethlisberger's linemen peel him slowly off the grass.
At 11:55 p.m., sacked again.
At 12:08 a.m., sacked again.
At 12:11 a.m., intercepted again.
At 12:14 a.m., Charlie Batch warms up.
At 12:20 a.m., Roethlisberger goes back out, anyway, and winds up 25 of 44 for 330 yards in the air, which would be fine except for those four turnovers and the lowest output of his illustrious career.
At 12:26 a.m., the scoreboard lights up — against all technological odds — the final: 49ers 20, Steelers 3.
At 12:41 a.m., Tomlin explains his decision to stick by Roethlisberger: "He was deemed healthy enough to play. We always like what Ben provides us. We appreciate his efforts. Obviously, we fell short."
At 1:04 a.m., Roethlisberger divulges that he balked against Batch entering late because, as he put it, "I didn't want to quit on my teammates."
But he could talk the coach out of a call that important?
At 1:06 a.m., John Norwig, the Steelers' head athletic trainer, barks at Steve Young of the ESPN crew, who had been critical of the Steelers' decision to use Roethlisberger and predicted they'd need to administer cortisone: "He played without a needle," Norwig tells Young.
Really, could all this have been any messier with Batch behind center?
Columnist Dejan Kovacevic selects the game's top performers:
Aldon Smith, 49ers, LB • Ben Roethlisberger's worst enemy with seven quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, two tackles for losses and a forced fumble.
Vernon Davis, 49ers, TE • Caught six balls for 72 yards and the easiest touchdown anyone's produced in the NFL all season
Jerricho Cotchery, Steelers, WR • Five catches for a game-high 93 yards would signify he's going to be taking a lot more of Hines Ward's playing time