By Liam Quinn – San Francisco 49ers Writer
A lot has changed since the San Francisco 49ers last played the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was September 2015 and the 49ers had embarked on a new chapter after mutually agreeing to terminate the contract of head coach Jim Harbaugh, due to increasing tension between the coach and the owner following a disappointing 8-8 season. They had also lost several key leaders of their squad including; Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, and Vernon Davis. Oh, how those guys were missed.
Still, football moves fast, and the 49ers went into the 2015 season under new coach Jim Tomsula, with the hope that their offseason departures would not impact their chances of competing. After a convincing 20-3 win over the Minnesota Vikings in week one, they traveled east to play the Pittsburgh Steelers in a key week two matchup at Heinz Field.
It was a blowout. The Steelers won by a score of 43-18 and believe me, the game was ugly. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards and 3 touchdowns, Antonio Brown had 195 receiving yards and DeAngelo Williams rushed for 3 more touchdowns. Although there were a lot of pre-existing flaws that Jim Tomsula had inherited, you could argue that this game was the start of the 49ers slide into mediocrity. Sure enough, they finished the 2015 season with a 5-11 record and haven’t come close to a winning season since then. In fact, throughout the last four years, they’ve registered a mere 17 wins and a staggering 47 losses.
A turning point?
When Jimmy Garoppolo completed just 1 of 6 passes for 0 yards against the Denver Broncos in the preseason, you wouldn’t be blamed for expecting another uphill battle this season. Yet, here we are, heading into week 3, with the 49ers sat on a 2-0 record for the first time in what feels like forever. In fact, the last time they had two wins to open the season was 2012. Over the last two weeks, they have beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a score of 31-17 and they then traveled to Cincinnati and tamed the Bengals with a 41-17 win. The most impressive part? Both wins were on the road and on the Eastern time zone, where the 49ers had previously lost 11 straight games.
All of this means that the 49ers go into Sunday’s game against the Steelers with a fresh breeze of swagger and confidence. Without getting carried away, things seem to have taken a positive turn and there is a sense of confidence around the team that they can win again and remain unbeaten. So, let’s look at some of the things that need to go right for the 49ers to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 1998.
First of all, Garoppolo needs to continue to shake off the dust and build upon last week’s solid performance against the Bengals, which, on paper, he should have no problem doing. So far this season, the 49ers have had 22 offensive possessions and incredibly are yet to go 3 and out. In contrast, the Steelers have given up an alarming 445 yards per game. Look for Garoppolo to establish the play-action quickly, as he completed all 10 of his play-action passing attempts last week.
Another big factor going into Sunday’s game will be the 49ers left tackle position. Whilst there were a lot of positives to take from the Bengals matchup, it did, unfortunately, produce a significant injury. Joe Staley, a 13-year veteran and 6-time Pro Bowler, went down with a broken fibula and is expected to miss approximately 6-8 weeks. The next man up is rookie Justin Skule, who stands at 6”6 and played in the SEC at Vanderbilt. This will be a huge test for the rookie, and the 49ers passing game could be in jeopardy, depending on how well Skule performs. Expect the Steelers to get at Skule early and test his nerves. His ability to protect ‘Jimmy G’ will be an important factor in this game and early pressure could lead to nerves from the recently recovered quarterback.
The final key matchup that will dictate the outcome of the game is the 49ers pass rush, and particularly the health of their defensive line. Consistent pressure has been a big factor in the two wins so far and the 49ers already have 7 sacks on the season. A big reason for this, of course, is the arrival of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. The good news is that Bosa appears to be getting healthier. He’s already registered 10 pressures, which is the most by any defender, despite being held out as a precaution during parts of the game versus Cincinnati. His ability to apply pressure may become all the more important given the news that Ford appears to have aggravated a knee injury and is questionable to play. Since Mason Rudolph will be making his first regular-season start for the Steelers, sustained pressure by the 49ers line will be a key factor in dictating the outcome of the game.
On the other hand, you have the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have had a miserable start to the season. Their season opener was always going to be a challenge; a primetime matchup against the New England Patriots in Foxboro. However, it’s unlikely that anyone predicted they would be on the receiving end of a 33-3 blowout. This was then followed by a home matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, with the heavily dependable Russell Wilson at the helm. The Steelers were leading the game 10-7 when Ben Roethlisberger went down with an injury to his throwing arm and was replaced by the second-year quarterback, Rudolph. The Seahawks went on to win the game by a score of 28-26 and it was later announced that Roethlisberger is ruled out for the remainder of the season.
So, you’d expect the Steelers chances to plummet this season, right? Well, they shouldn’t be overlooked just yet. Mason Rudolph, who stands at 6 foot 5, is an exciting young prospect that can certainly compete. He had a solid game on Sunday and he’s likely to be better after a full week of practice under his belt. His college stats after all provide should provide Steelers fans with a reason for optimism. At Oklahoma State, he threw for 13,267 yards, with a 90-26 touchdown to interception ratio so we shouldn’t expect him to turn the ball over cheaply.
Any doubts of the Steelers going into rebuild mode were then quickly shunted with the news that they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick this week. As part of a trade with the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers gave up a 2020 first-round pick, 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 sixth-round pick in return for Fitzpatrick, as well as a 2020 fourth-round pick and 2021 seventh-round pick. This move signifies that the Steelers are still in “win now” mode and in Fitzpatrick, they gain a high-quality safety that can make an immediate impact and improve the Steelers shaky defensive start to the season. It’s very possible that he makes a quick impact and helps the underperforming Steelers defense tighten things up this week.
One concern for the Steelers heading into the game is the health of James Conner. Despite picking up an injury in last weeks game against the Seahawks, it appears that he’ll be ready to suit up. As of Friday, Conner was a full participant in practice. This is a significant matchup for several reasons. Firstly, Conner’s presence will allow Rudolph to have more time on the ball. He also carries a dual-threat and his pass-catching ability will provide Rudolph with an important security blanket. So far in his short NFL career, he is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and an impressive 9 yards per reception. The Steelers need Conner to perform to break the much-improved 49ers run defense and give them a shot at winning the game. The 49ers held the Bengals and Joe Mixon to just 25 yards on 19 carries last week, although granted he wasn’t at full speed. If Conner isn’t at full health, then the Steelers will rely on Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. can get it going.
Sunday’s game is difficult to predict. As you can see from above, there are lots of variables that could have a big influence on the game. The 49ers offense will look to get hot early and if they put up similar numbers as last week, then the Steelers will find it difficult to keep up. However, the 49ers haven’t gone into a game as favorites in a long time and this new type of pressure may throw some of their players off guard. They are 6.5-point favorites in a game for the first time since the 2014 finale against Arizona (which they won). But, there’s a reason why. The Steelers are on the road, with an inexperienced quarterback and Mike Tomlin is 1-5 as a head coach when the Steelers play on the West coast. Whilst the Steelers will have enough to keep the game fairly tight, expect their woes to continue as they fall to 0-3 on the season.
Key 49er to watch?
The key 49er to watch on Sunday has to be Deebo Samuel. He is quickly building a strong rapport with Jimmy G and he had a very impressive game against the Bengals. The rookie second-round draft pick finished the game with 5 receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown. His ability to move the chains and also make big plays is something that the 49ers have lacked in the last few years. With no official number one receiver on the team, Samuel has another great opportunity on Sunday to stake his claim as the go-to guy.
San Francisco 49ers 27-21 Pittsburgh Steelers.