Mason Rudolph completed 14 of 27 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in his first career start, as the Steelers fell to the 49ers, 24-20, Sunday afternoon at Levi Stadium.
The loss dropped the Steelers to 0-3 and was very similar to many they’ve had dating back to last November 25, when they started what has now become a 2-7 slide.
Close but no cigar.
Much like a week earlier against the Seahawks, Pittsburgh’s defense was quite dominant in the first half, and on the third play from scrimmage, a 49ers screen pass that was intended for Mike Breida glanced off the running back’s hand and wound up in the arms of outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who returned it to the San Francisco 33.
Unfortunately, three quick passes by Rudolph netted just five years, and kicker Chris Boswell came on to try a 46-yard field goal, which he converted to make it 3-0, Pittsburgh.
Following an exchange of punts, the Steelers defense played takeaway once again, when cornerback Joe Haden tipped a pass into the arms of newly-acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrack, who returned the interception 14 yards to the San Francisco 24-yard line.
Once again, the Steelers offense couldn’t take full advantage and had to settle for a second Boswell field goal, this time from 26 yards away, to make it 6-0.
The 49ers advanced into Pittsburgh territory on their following drive, but again, they were victimized by the turnover bug when Fitzpatrick knocked the football out of the grasps of running back Raheem Mostert, and Devin Bush recovered it at the Steelers nine-yard line.
Following a quick punt by the Steelers, the 49ers again moved the football into Pittsburgh territory and again fumbled it away, when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo couldn’t handle the snap from center, and Bush recovered the fumble at the Steelers seven.
The Steelers offense struggled to move the ball the rest of the first half, and San Francisco finally got on the board late in the second period thanks to a 24-yard field goal by Robbie Gould to make it 6-3.
All-in-all, the Steelers defense took the football away four times in the first half, and all the offense could muster was 76 yards and six points.
Pittsburgh received the second half kickoff and immediately gave the ball back to the 49ers when a Rudolph pass intended for receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was intercepted by cornerback K’Waun Williams, who returned it four yards to the Steelers 38.
Unlike Pittsburgh, the 49ers offense quickly took advantage of the takeaway and took a 10-6 lead on an eight-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard touchdown run by running back Jeff Wilson Jr.
After the two teams exchanged punts, the Steelers regained the lead thanks to a 76-yard touchdown catch and run by Smith-Schuster.
The Steelers defense offered little resistance on the following drive, as the 49ers marched 75 yards on 10 plays and re-took the lead on another touchdown run by Wilson Jr., this time from four yards out.
The Steelers struck back with 10:22 left in the game, when Rudolph found rookie receiver Diontae Johnson on a 39-yard touchdown pass to give Pittsburgh a 20-17 lead. The big break on the drive came one play earlier when a deep pass intended for James Washington resulted in defensive pass interference.
Once again, the Steelers defense seemed to show little resistance in protecting a three-point lead. But just when it looked like San Francisco would jump back in front, a pitchout intended for receiver Richie James was muffed and recovered by Watt at the Steelers 14 with just 6:49 left in the game–the unit’s fifth takeaway on the afternoon.
Sadly for the Steelers, they re-gifted the fumble three plays later, when running back James Conner was stripped of the football, and the 49ers recovered the fumble at the Pittsburgh 24-yard line.
Needing to hold the 49ers to a field goal attempt, Pittsburgh’s defense came up small, first on a holding penalty on inside linebacker Mark Barron on third down and 11 that gave the 49ers a fresh set of downs at the nine. Two plays later, Dante Pettis pulled in a five-yard touchdown pass from Garroppolo to make it 24-20 with just 1:15 remaining.
There would be no Mason Magic to end the game, as the offense quickly turned the ball over on downs to put the final nail in the Steelers 0-3 coffin.
Pittsburgh’s offense tallied just 239 yards and a paltry 11 first downs. And, much like the previous week against Seattle, Keith Butler‘s defense seemed to wither down the stretch after a quick start. For the day, the unit surrendered 436 total yards–including 168 on the ground.
As for the Steelers ground game, it netted just 79 yards on the day–including 43 on 13 carries by Conner, who, again, had a costly fumble late in the fourth quarter.
Next up for the Steelers is a prime-time affair against the Bengals next Monday night at Heinz Field.