PITTSBURGH -- San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, like Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona, is trying to bring the Rust Belt toughness of the 3-4 defense into the NFC West. From the looks of things Sunday, the 49ers must endure a few broken noses before they accomplish this mission.
As coaches will tell you, a 3-4 defense is often only as good as its nose tackle. The Steelers (3-0) have Pro Bowler Casey Hampton. The Patriots have Vince Wilfork. The Chargers have Jamal Williams. Nolan believes Niners nose tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Isaac Sopoaga have great futures, but the Steelers busted the 49ers' nose in a 37-16 rout.
Pittsburgh's Willie Parker rushed for 133 yards on 24 carries as the Steelers piled up 205 yards on the ground. The Steelers' defense, on the other hand, held a team without a 100-yard rusher for the 28th consecutive game. The 49ers' Frank Gore gained 39 yards on 14 carries. Only once in the past 47 games has a running back gained more than 100 yards against Pittsburgh.
"The coaches always say that it's not your place to make the defense, it's the defense that allows you to make plays," Hampton said.
Hampton's job is to occupy the center and a guard, cocking his 6-1, 325-pound body between them. With one guard out of action and not blocking a linebacker, other Steelers defenders can fill gaps and stop running lanes. Gore had no holes open to run, and Hampton's ability to occupy blockers made it look as though the 49ers were going against a defense that had 12 or 13 players.
"The nose is important in the 3-4, but I think it's a matter of the different looks they give you that makes it tough," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "It disrupts your blocking."
This is Year 3 in the 49ers' switch to a 3-4, and San Francisco (2-1) might be a defensive line draft from matching up against a team such as the Steelers. If it's up front that counts, the Steelers are the model of what the 49ers aspire to be. In addition to Hampton, end Aaron Smith, who has 10-sack potential, also plays at a Pro Bowl level.
Trent Dilfer, the 49ers' backup quarterback, is a good judge of strategy and players. He is confident that Franklin and Sopoaga will be drawing double-teams by the end of the season. Clearly, that type of respect isn't due yet. Sean Mahan, a guard-center signed from Tampa Bay, single-blocked the 49ers nose tackles most of the game, freeing his guards to block the linebackers and open running lanes for Parker.
"It helps a lot if the center can do that," Mahan said of taking out a nose tackle single-handed. "When you play a 3-4 team, that's the challenge of it."
But experience is everything in playing the 3-4 correctly. Even though the Steelers switched from Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin at head coach, Dick LeBeau remains the defensive coordinator. The system grows instead of changing.
At first on Sunday, the Steelers' defense struggled. Linebacker James Farrior was caught slightly out of position and opened the door for an 8-yard Gore run. Smith was able to drive 61 yards on 11 plays for a field goal to open the game. After that first drive, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler yelled at those defenders who didn't play their gaps correctly. After that, the problems were solved.
"The things we do we have been doing for a long time," Farrior said. "We have guys who play their gaps and their keys so well. We don't have too many mental breakdowns. They got a couple plays on us early. My coach got on me for being out of my gap for a couple plays, and we made it right."
Gore gained only 12 yards on his first four carries. After the corrections were made, he had only 27 yards on 10 carries the rest of the game. The 49ers finished with just 289 total yards.
The 49ers stayed competitive for three quarters, trailing 14-6 at the half and 17-9 through three quarters. About the only success Smith could mount against the Steelers was with passes to tight end Vernon Davis, who complained recently about his limited involvement in the offense.
Davis had four receptions for 69 yards. Smith was able to find him a couple of times when the Steelers were in a zone defense in which one of the inside linebackers trailed Davis in coverage. Two plays involving tight ends proved important.
Steelers tight end Heath Miller, who is getting more involved in the offense each week, led the Steelers with four catches for 82 yards. Miller hasn't had a 40-catch season with the Steelers, which is strange because he not only was a first-round pick but also is Ben Roethlisberger's roommate on road trips. They are close friends.
Early in the third quarter, Miller appeared to put the game out of reach with an incredible catch with linebacker Hannibal Navies tightly covering him at the 49ers 2. Roethlisberger placed the ball perfectly for Miller to make a soft catch at the sideline. Nolan challenged the completion call and got a reversal. Instead of setting up a short touchdown to open a 21-6 lead, the Steelers settled for a field goal and led 17-6.
Smith bounced back with a nice drive. On a third-and-13, he appeared to hit Davis for a 22-yard gain at the Steelers 10, but Troy Polamalu hit Davis low. The tight end flipped into the air. Once his elbow hit the ground, the ball came out and flew into the hands of Steelers safety Ryan Clark. The play was ruled a fumble. Nolan challenged, but this time he didn't win. The play was ruled an incompletion. Worse, Davis suffered a knee injury that has the team concerned.
It was a physical game, but the 49ers showed they are students and not masters of the 3-4. At least they can look at the tape and try to study. Next week, the Steelers face the Cardinals, who are making a similar conversion to the 3-4. The Cardinals might need extra padding at the nose to get ready for that one.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.