Despite forcing 5 turnovers, Steelers lose to 49ers
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Despite all of the yardage allowed, the time spent on the field, the two leads surrendered, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense produced a fifth turnover Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, giving the offense a chance to hold on for that elusive first win of the season.
But on a day when the Steelers kept taking the ball away, they gave it back a second time, which was one too many. Taking advantage of James Conner’s fourth-quarter fumble, the 49ers scored a second touchdown following a Steelers turnover and escaped with a 24-20 victory at Levi’s Stadium.
Dante Pettis’ 5-yard touchdown catch with 1 minute, 15 seconds left, which came after a holding penalty negated a third-down stop, dropped the Steelers to 0-3 and spoiled Mason Rudolph’s first start in place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger.
“We’ve got to finish games,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “With a great start and all the turnovers we had, we’ve got to find a way to win.”
The next chance will come against the 0-3 Cincinnati Bengals on “Monday Night Football” in a battle of AFC North cellar dwellers. The Steelers are winless after three games for the first time since 2013 and are 1-6 on the West Coast during coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure.
“We didn’t do enough today to win it,” Tomlin said. “We didn’t work in concert to accentuate the positives. We didn’t work in concert well enough to minimize the negative.”
T.J. Watt’s fumble recovery with 6:49 left halted a drive at the Steelers 14. But Conner fumbled three plays later, the ball squirting out as he fell forward. DeForest Buckner recovered for the 49ers.
“I thought I was down,” Conner said.
There would be no sixth turnover for the Steelers defense, which created four in the first half. Just a holding penalty by inside linebacker Mark Barron after 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo avoided a heavy pass rush and threw incomplete.
Instead of the 49ers sending out kicker Robbie Gould to attempt a tying field goal, they had a first down at the 9. Garoppolo found Pettis at the goal line two plays later to give the 49ers their third lead of the second half.
“We were in an advantageous situation,” Heyward said. “You only want to surrender three (points). We just have to finish that damn play. We’re right there, and games come down to inches and you’ve got to make that play.”
Barron didn’t disagree with the holding call.
“I can’t get a damn penalty in that situation,” Barron said. “I’ve got to be better.”
It was emblematic of the Steelers’ day on defense. For all of the turnovers created — interceptions by Watt and new safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and three fumble recoveries, including two by rookie Devin Bush — the defense was on the field for 73 plays, and the 49ers had the ball for more than 36 minutes.
The 49ers had 436 yards of offense compared to 241 for the Steelers and extended drives by converting 6 of 11 third downs. Garoppolo had 277 yards passing, and the 49ers rushed for 168 more.
“It’s frustrating, but at the same time, we had chances,” cornerback Joe Haden said.
Rudolph threw a 76-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 39-yard score to rookie Diontae Johnson, each providing a second-half lead for the Steelers.
Rudolph didn’t have tight end Vance McDonald available for much of the game. McDonald injured his shoulder early in the second quarter and didn’t return.
Rudolph completed 14 of 27 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. But while the 49ers got 14 points off the two turnovers, the Steelers managed just a pair of Chris Boswell field goals in the first half.
“When the defense causes turnovers for us, we’ve got to go down and capitalize,” Smith-Schuster said. “We can’t settle for field goals. That’s a game changer when you put points on the board with touchdowns.”
Rudolph was 8 of 15 for 40 yards in the first half. On the opening drive of the second, he threw an interception to former Pitt player K’Waun Williams, and the 49ers turned it into a touchdown and 10-6 lead.
Held to 97 total yards to that point, the Steelers got 76 when Rudolph hooked up with Smith-Schuster on a touchdown that restored the lead, 13-10, with 5:42 left in the third.
The Steelers, however, gave seven points right back when Garoppolo led a 10-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in Jeff Wilson’s second touchdown run, a 4-yarder with 56 seconds left in the third.
“That’s where we have to stand up,” Haden said. “We had a great game. Five turnovers is good, but situationally when we need to makes those stops, we’ve got to do it.”
Rudolph went deep and hooked up with Johnson on a 39-yard touchdown with 10:22 left to push the Steelers back on top, 20-17.
Again, the 49ers moved back down the field with ease and had first-and-goal at the Steelers 8 before Watt pounced on a fumble on third down. It was the first time since 2010 that the Steelers forced five turnovers in a game.
“Geez, the defense gave us so many opportunities,” guard David DeCastro said. “I still can’t believe it. The plays they had, the takeaways, it’s a game you’re supposed to win.”
But one the Steelers did not, which has become a theme in the first month of the season.
“We’re 0-3, but it’s not like we’re out here getting blown out and it’s a poop show,” guard Ramon Foster said. “What we’re dealing with right now is finding our identity. That takes some time sometimes. We’ve got a lot of games left in the season. … What we can’t do is panic and try to overdo stuff.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .