PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin isn’t going to tell the world what his game plan is for stopping the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
“We’re going to try to play with 12 guys,” he joked during his Thursday media briefing.
But he did outline the problems that the 49ers present.
San Francisco’s offense, run by Kyle Shanahan and his father before him, has always been a run-first offense. Last season, the 49ers were one of seven NFL teams to run the ball more than 48% of the time.
But this isn’t a Cleveland Browns or Tennessee Titans situation where teams can load up against the 49ers rushing attack, mostly because of the versatility of running back Christian McCaffrey.
“He is a special talent coming out of the backfield and what makes him special is that he can split out and run the wide receiver stuff. That guy is really unique. He catches the ball and runs the ball well. We have to make sure that when he gets the ball, he’s not getting it in space.”
In that way, the challenge becomes a collective one instead of an individual one. Alex Highsmith knows that he’s going to face Trent Williams. One corner — perhaps Patrick Peterson — will probably spend a lot of time facing Brandon Aiyuk. But McCaffrey? One play, it could be linebacker Elandon Roberts, another Highsmith in a flat zone, another safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
“It’s not one man’s job,” said nose tackle Montravius Adams. “There’s multiple players that are going to have different looks at it. … I don’t think it’ll be specifically hard on one person because we’re covering him as a team.”
Moving McCaffrey around isn’t the only problem the 49ers present. Slot receiver Deebo Samuel is one of the best running wide receivers in the NFL and tight end George Kittle has an elite combination of blocking and receiving talent.
It’s easy to see why Austin might think he needs that 12th guy.