By Liam Quinn – San Francisco 49ers Writer
Fans at Levi’s Stadium certainly got their value for money during the San Francisco 49ers home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which had just about everything. The tightly contested battle had seven turnovers, five lead changes and a game-winning drive for the 49ers that resulted in a touchdown with just 1:15 seconds left on the clock. As a result, San Francisco moved to 3-0 for the first time in 21 years, whilst the Steelers are looking for answers as they search for their first win of the season.
A Chaotic Half
After putting up 41 points against the Bengals last week, the expectation going into Sunday was that the 49ers would put on an offensive masterclass. Instead, it turned into something of a comedy script. The 49ers had seven offensive possessions during the first half of the game and an alarming four of them ended with turnovers. Their first five drives went like this: interception, punt, interception, fumble, fumble. Thankfully for Jimmy G and co, the damage of those turnovers was limited to just six points.
Thanks to those turnovers, Mason Rudolph, in for the injured Ben Roethlisberger, had a golden opportunity to make a statement in his first career start. And, with two of the Steelers drives starting on the San Francisco 33 and 38-yard lines, a big lead looked likely. However, while the 49ers had problems holding on to the ball, their opponent’s issue was simply moving it. Rudolph did not make one pass that went over the line of scrimmage and the Steelers would have to settle for just a 6-0 lead after Mason Crosby converted two field goals. The 49ers went on to temporarily figure out their ball-control issues, and a Robbie Gould field goal made it 6-3 at halftime.
To me… to you…
If you thought that the turnovers would slow down in the second half, they didn’t. After only four plays, Mason Rudolph’s pass was intercepted by K’Waun Williams and the 49ers had the ball. They capitalised quickly and Jeff Wilson Jr’s 1-yard run put San Francisco ahead 10-7. Now, here come those lead changes. Rudolph responded with his first passing attempt for a gain, resulting in a 76-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 13-10 lead. The Steelers lead was short-lived though, as a 10-play, 75-yard 49er drive once again ended with a Jeff Wilson Jr touchdown to make it 17-13. Cue, another Steelers touchdown. On his second and final attempt beyond the line of scrimmage, Rudolph connected with Diontae Johnson for a 39-yard touchdown pass to take a 20-14 lead. Both offences had finally turned up.
With everything that had happened in this game, it’s no surprise that there was late drama. The 49ers had a 3rd and goal from the Steelers 7, with a chance to either tie the game or take the lead. They got neither. Richie James Jr set off on a crossing route and the snapped ball hit him on the way across, resulting in a fifth 49er turnover. Yet, once again, the Steelers couldn’t capitalise and James Conner fumbled the ball on his own 22-yard line and the 49ers recovered. A gutsy throw by Jimmy Garoppolo was caught by Dante Pettis and the 49ers went onto with the game 24-20.
That winning feeling
Turningover the ball and winning football games is not usually synonymous. You’d haveto go back to 1998 to find the last time that the 49ers won a game when committingfive turnovers. So, despite many positives, they should feel fortunate to comeaway with the win. Yet, weirdly, the game never felt in doubt. Jimmy Garoppololooked extremely comfortable moving the ball and remained positive throughout, despitethe continuous turnovers. Plus, when it came down to wire, he made sure that hehad control of the game. The 49ers had possession of the ball for 11:07 secondsin the 4th quarter, compared to just 3:53 for the Steelers.
The real winners this game was the 49er defence. It’s strange to admit, but they look good again. They were regularly tasked with the pressure of minimising offensive mistakes and they stepped up to the plate impeccably. The Steelers had just 239 total yards in the game and 115 of those came on the two long touchdown plays. With 1:09 left to play in the game, they terrorised Rudolph with constant pressure and forced a turnover on downs to win the game. Whilst they aren’t quite perfect, the winning mentality and determination of this football team is beginning to show.
The 49ers have a bye week coming up. Then, they have a tough matchup against the Browns on Monday Night Football in week five. Whilst the week off will temporarily stall momentum, it allows Dee Ford, Nick Bosa and Ahkello Witherspoon to have a much-needed rest. However, once cause for concern is that the 49ers have a miserable record coming off a bye week. Since 2003, they have won just 29.8% of games, going 5-12-1.