Undefeated through two games, the San Francisco 49ers returned home to face the winless Pittsburgh Steelers in an effort to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 1998.
Without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers (0-3) deployed second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph to face the 49ers top-ranked defense. A slew of early turnovers gave Pittsburgh the ball early and often in the first half, the San Francisco defense kept Pittsburgh out of the endzone and the 49ers (3-0) in the game.
Moving the ball well throughout the game, Jimmy Garoppolo (23-for-32, 277 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) and the San Francisco rushing attack (39 rushes for 168 yards) came out on top, 24-20.
The 49ers defense ranked among the best in sacks and passes defended through two games this season, and facing a young quarterback making his first career start only helped.
Garoppolo looked for Breida, but the running back bobbled the ball and Pittsburgh linebacker T.J. Watt pulled it in for the game’s first turnover.
Pittsburgh’s resulting drive included a couple of passes from Rudolph to JuJu Smith-Schuster and one to running back James Conner. It ended in a Chris Boswell 46-yard field goal, putting the Steelers up 3-0.
Through two drives, the 49ers defense held the Steelers offense to a combined 10 yards on six plays but trailed.
With 5:30 left in the quarter, the 49ers got the ball back. A run from Breida was stuffed on the first play, which was followed by yet another interception by Garoppolo. This time, a pass intended for Dante Pettis was deflected into the arms of newly-acquired Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
A mirror-image of the previous interception, the Steelers took it 16 yards into 49ers territory, resulting in another field goal. With 2:04 remaining in the first quarter, the 49ers trailed 6-0.
Garoppolo came out firing on the next drive, completing a 12-yard pass to Kittle, followed by a deep pass downfield to Kyle Juszczyk for 28 yards. At the Steelers 25-yard line, Raheem Mostert ran for 10 yards, before fumbling the ball after being tackled by Fitzpatrick. Through four drives, the 49ers turned the ball over three times, two of which snatched by Fitzpatrick.
A forced three-and-out once again gave the 49ers the ball back.
With 49ers receivers causing two of the three turnovers, Garoppolo targeted his fullback Juszczyk again for a big play of 22 yards. A 16-yard pass to Marquise Goodwin, followed by a roughing-the-passer penalty put the 49ers back in the red zone.
But this promising drive ended in another giveaway, a fumbled snap by Garoppolo recovered by Devin Bush. Turning the ball over four times already, it must be frustrating for an offense like the 49ers that has moved the ball well throughout the first half. Jimmy Garoppolo addressed any potential frustrations the offense had with the early turnovers:
“We knew we were moving it. We came in after half time, we didn’t want to press. We knew we weren’t going to get all of the points at once, we knew it was going to take one play at a time, just keep executing. We had the right mindset for it.”
The 49ers defense was phenomenal throughout the Steelers first five drives of the game, allowing only 42 yards on 12 plays. Once again, it held the line, giving the ball back to the offense with a chance to take a lead.
Garoppolo found Pettis over the middle for eight yards and completed a 15-yard pass to Breida, putting the 49ers in Steelers territory. A four-yard rush by Breida and an 11-yard pass over the middle to Kittle resulted in another red-zone trip. Two plays later, Mostert ran the ball up the middle again, falling five yards short of the first down. Robbie Gould put the 49ers on the board with a field goal, cutting the Steelers lead to 6-3.
Pettis’ snaps have been minimal through the first two games. A much better game from his on Sunday may silence some of the critics. Garoppolo’s praise of Pettis has never waivered. He had this to say about his second-year wide receiver after the game.
Garoppolo addressed the changes he has seen from Pettis after a bounce-back game:
“Nothing, honestly. Dante’s phenomenal in practice. I know you guys aren’t seeing all that and everything, but he battles his ass off in practice. Great mindset of when his number’s called, he’s ready. You’ve got to appreciate a guy like that. Having all that competitiveness, youlove to see it as a quarterback, because you can trust that then.”
On the fifth play of the Steelers opening drive in the second half, K’Waun Williams picked off a Rudolph pass headed to Smith-Schuster.
Garoppolo and the offense marched down the field in a hurry. Completing passes to Kendrick Bourne and Juszczyk, and runs from Breida and Mostert set up a Jeff Wilson Jr. touchdown run.
The Steelers offense finally found some openings against the San Francisco defense.
Pinned deep in their own territory, Rudolph completed a 10-yard pass that Smith-Schuster took for a 76-yard score.
The 49ers responded right away, with a long drive of their own. A nine-yard run by Mostert was followed two plays later by a 20-yard pass to Deebo Samuel. Runs from Mostert and Breida put the 49ers at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line. Another run by Breida, and a short pass to Pettis over the middle set-up Wilson Jr.’s second rushing touchdown of the game, from four yards out. The 49ers took a 17-13 lead to close out the third quarter.
Rudolph began to heat up at just the right time. A drive that started at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line was taken 81 yards in two plays, resulting in a 39-yard touchdown pass from Rudolph to Diontae Johnson, giving the Steelers a 20-17 lead with 10:22 left in the game. Before the Steelers drive, 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was carted off with a foot injury. Jason Verrett came in to replace Witherspoon.
A back-and-forth game continued with the 49ers following the Steelers touchdown drive with a deep drive into Steelers territory. A seven-yard run by Breida set up a 25-yard pass to a wide-open Goodwin. Already in Pittsburgh territory, a couple of runs by Breida and Mostert set-up a first-and-ten at the Steelers 19-yard line. Another fumble fell into the arms of the Steelers defense, the third red-zone turnover of the day for the 49ers.
Continuing the theme of costly turnovers, the Steelers immediately gave the ball back to the 49ers. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead forced a fumble from Steelers running back James Conner. All of a sudden, the 49ers offense had the ball back at the Steelers 24-yard line. After the game, Armstead addressed the huge forced turnover, and how the defense was waiting for things to bounce their way.
“Yeah, it was a run play. I was getting vertical, bounced it and cut back, and was able to get him and you know, get the ball out.” [ Reporter:”With them winning the turnover battle, did you feel like it was going to get to some point where you guys were going to get one yourselves?”] “Yeah, that’s what we’re always striving for is creating turnovers on defense. You know, we figured if we keep fighting, keep fighting, it’s going to happen.”
After a couple of penalties, one on the 49ers and one on the Steelers, the 49ers had a first-and-nine with under two minutes left. Dante Pettis made the biggest play of his (so-far) lackluster sophomore season, snatching a five-yard strike from Garoppolo to grab a 24-20 lead with just over a minute left.
The 49ers needed one last stop on defense to seal the victory. The Steelers had a third-and-three, resulting in a loss of nine yards from a DeForest Buckner tackle of Rudolph. A last-ditch effort on 4th-and-12 resulted in an incompletion to seal the Steelers fate. The 49ers walked away with a 24-20 win after turning the ball over five times.
Kyle Shanahan discussed the win over the Steelers:
“Very happy. I’m exhausted. I thought we played extremely well at some times and played extremely bad at some times. Anytime you have five turnovers in a game, that means you didn’t play well. But, you take those away, and every aspect of the game decides that. I thought the guys did very well. It reminded me a lot of the Arizona game we had last year, we had a game versus Arizona where it was like 30 first downs to 10, and like 500 yards to 200, but we ended up losing the game because we had all those turnovers. Today was very similar, so it looked like we were going down that same (road), but the defense, they stepped it up big. Pittsburgh was already in the redzone when they got it, held them to two field goals. Offense got going in the second half, but then we got that fumble down there in the redzone to end, for the defense got the ball right back. It was huge.”
Following their 24-20 win over the Steelers, the 49er’s get an early bye week next week. Their Week 4 bye will be beneficial for their injured players, such as WR Jalen Hurd and RB Tevin Coleman. After the bye week, the 49er’s welcome Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and the Cleveland Browns for a prime-time game at Levi’s Stadium. A Monday Night Football game on October 5th will begin at 5:15 PM.
Terrell Owens was celebrating his recent induction into both the Pro Football and 49ers Hall Of Fame. …
Coming into Week 3, Garoppolo had only been hit twice through two games. Sunday’s contest featured more hits for the 49ers quarterback, especially with left-tackle Joe Staley sidelined. It turns out, Garoppolo doesn’t mind getting hit all that much, it energizes him. …
Replacing Staley was rookie Justin Skule. Following his first career start on Sunday, Skule said of his performance:
“A lot of stuff to fix. Can’t have those penalties, those were costly penalties at pretty bad times. I had a couple of good things, but i am going to learn from it all from the tape and move on.”
Skule’s evaluation of his performance was rather humble, while Shanahan’s was more glowing. Shanahan said Skule did “very well,’ and mentioned that he didn’t talk about him much during the game, which is a positive sign. No news is good news in Shanahan’s eyes.