On Sunday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they'd finally found the formula for success as they grabbed three early turnovers. Unfortunately, with near-constant pressure from the San Francisco Forty-Niners defensive front, the conservative plays sent in to Mason Rudolph in his first NFL start could not generate enough momentum to swing things in Pittsburgh's favor until the third quarter. After a rare fumble from James Conner after T.J. Watt grabbed his second takeaway of the game to get the ball to the offense, the 'Niners were able to take advantage for the lead and the win, 24-20.
Rudolph is the Steelers' QB1 now, and there was a lot that he did right in this game. He showed an ability to scramble. He stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure. He used his legs to get yards when the pocket collapsed around him. He also made two exceptional passing plays; one went to JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 76-yard touchdown and the other resulted in rookie receiver Dionte Johnson's first NFL touchdown.
San Francisco stacked the box and made rushing the ball very difficult for Pittsburgh. With so many bodies pressing in, it would have been beneficial for Rudolph had offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner put some short crossing routes into the playbook. Unfortunately, with such a conservative approach, the Steelers offense looked flat and ineffective for the majority of the game.
This is the third loss in a row due mainly to the Steelers offense being unable to capitalize on opportunities the defense has given them. It is also the third game in a row that has presented a bland, unoriginal offensive approach. That's not really on Rudolph or the young receiving corps. The Conner fumble hurt because Pittsburgh could have held onto their three-point lead and run out the clock... but it would have required they be able to convert critical third downs, which seems to be the bane of the Steelers.
Until Pittsburgh can find their offense, they'll be forced to ask the defense to score points. That's not a reasonable request.
Defensively, the Steelers are even more exciting with Minkah Fitzpatrick on the roster but still not perfect. A big part of the imperfection against the 'Niners was due, like the past two games, to an inability to get off the field later in the game.
Things started off with a big bang, however. On the game's opening series, Watt was able to snatch a bobbled pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to Matt Breida for an interception. The Steelers turned it into three points (Boswell field goal). On the next offensive series, Stephon Tuitt sacked Garoppolo and Rasheem Mostert fumbled the ball but was able to recover it.
On the next series, Fitzpatrick grabbed a ball that was tipped by Joe Haden for his first Steelers interception. Fitzpatrick came up big again when he delivered a hit on Mostert that knocked the ball loose and was picked up by Devin Bush. Bush would later grab a fumbled 'Niners exchange between Garoppolo and the center.
After the Steelers took the 20-17 lead, Watt grabbed a loose ball to give it back to the offense and give Pittsburgh their fifth takeaway of the game.
Unfortunately, after San Francisco failed to convert a third-down pass to go ahead, Mark Barron - who didn't have a spectacular game - was flagged for holding and the 'Niners were given a new set of downs. On a short pass to Dante Pettis that looked like Steven Nelson might have a bead on, the Steelers watched their opponents take the lead with little-to-no time left on the clock. The Steelers didn't have the spark to move the ball down the field for the win.
With the win-loss record now 0-3 on the season, the Steelers aren't in "win now" mode but "fix it now" mode. The biggest disappointment is that all of the fabulous efforts early in the game by a defense that was fired up was wasted. Until Pittsburgh fixes its issues on offense, this team is in a desperate situation.