Kevin Gorman: Mason Rudolph takes more blame than he deserves for Steelers’ loss
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Mason Rudolph took this loss on his shoulders, despite throwing two second-half touchdowns and giving the Pittsburgh Steelers a fourth-quarter lead.
The Steelers’ 24-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium was as much about their struggles at the start as it was their failures at the finish.
“We just came out slow,” Rudolph said. “I’m more to blame than anyone.”
No one was expecting Rudolph to be a replica of Ben Roethlisberger, who is lost for the season with an elbow injury that will require surgery. Not in Rudolph’s first career NFL start. Not on the road. Not against the undefeated 49ers.
This loss, which dropped the Steelers to 0-3, wasn’t strictly on the second-year quarterback. It was on the Pro Bowl wide receiver who was invisible for the first half, the Pro Bowl offensive linemen who couldn’t establish a rushing attack and the Pro Bowl running back who fumbled in the fourth quarter.
It was on a defense filled with former first-round draft picks that forced five turnovers, including two inside their own 10, but ultimately couldn’t stop San Francisco on third downs, as the 49ers converted 6 of 11 (55%).
“We lost today,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “all of us.”
But Rudolph knows the math.
Five turnovers can’t equal six points.
“We’ve got to get more out of it,” Rudolph said, pursing his lips. “A lot of that falls on my shoulders, getting us in the end zone and converting on possession downs.”
The Steelers gave Rudolph a welcome gift with T.J. Watt’s interception on the opening drive. When Rudolph took over at the San Francisco 33, we expected him to deliver a dagger and take a shot at the end zone by throwing it to his old Oklahoma State teammate James Washington.
Instead, the Steelers answered aggressive play with passive play-calling by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, opting for a short pass over the middle to James Conner for no gain. Second down was even worse, when a short pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went for a 2-yard loss. On third-and-12, Rudolph threw to Smith-Schuster for a 7-yard gain.
So much for going vertical.
Instead, the Steelers settled for a 46-yard field goal by Chris Boswell and a 3-0 lead. You had to momentarily rationalize it: At least they scored. Heck, it was as many points as they scored against the Patriots in the opener at New England.
When Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Jimmy Garoppolo and returned it to the San Francisco 24, Rudolph got another chance. Again, the Steelers went with short passes and safe runs. On third-and-6, Rudolph scrambled for a 1-yard gain. Boswell trotted out again, this time for 26-yard field goal and 6-0 lead.
That was the good news.
The Steelers created five turnovers. They led to six points. The 49ers created two turnovers that led to two touchdowns. That’s the difference in the game.
“No doubt,” Rudolph said. “I told Cam (Heyward) that. That game’s on us. We had so many opportunities, with the turnovers in the first half and the momentum swing with the defense. We’ve got to put more points on the board for you guys.”
Tomlin said the Steelers lost “on not enough playmaking,” but you can make a case they lost on not enough play-calling. The Steelers wanted to establish the run, but the 49ers loaded the box and dared them to throw into single coverage.
So the Steelers threw sideways.
And the game followed suit.
Rudolph completed 14 of 27 passes for 174 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. Subtract Smith-Schuster’s 76-yard touchdown, and the numbers are pedestrian: Rudolph averaged 7.5 yards per completion, 3.8 yards per attempt.
“For a young guy to come in and start his first game, an away game all the way on the West Coast, going against a great team, he handled himself well,” Smith-Schuster said. “On situations where we messed up on plays and didn’t execute and turned the ball over, he stayed positive and he kept us going.”
The offense didn’t get rolling until the second half, when Smith-Schuster caught a pass on a crossing pattern with cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon on his heels and turned it into the 76-yard touchdown that gave the Steelers a 13-10 third-quarter lead.
The offense didn’t go vertical until the fourth quarter, when backup corner Jason Verrett was called for pass interference after tripping up James Washington on a deep route. On the next play, Rudolph tossed a 39-yard touchdown pass to rookie Diontae Johnson for a 20-17 lead with 10 minutes, 22 seconds remaining.
It would have been poetic, if it were the ending.
The Steelers had a chance, stopping the 49ers on a third-and-goal at the 7 when receiver Richie James Jr. went in motion and collided with Garoppolo to cause a fumble Watt recovered.
Three plays later, Conner fumbled it back to give the 49ers another shot at the 24 with 5:29 remaining. That’s when Garoppolo did what Rudolph couldn’t, turning the turnover into a touchdown with a 5-yard pass to Dante Pettis.
Afterward, Rudolph accepted the blame, mentioning he made too many mistakes. Most notably was not turning turnovers into touchdowns. He was hardly alone in coming up short for the Steelers, but quarterbacks are taught to own a loss.
The Steelers gift-wrapped the start, only to fail in the fourth quarter. Rudolph knows the math, knows the score. The quarterback will take the blame, even more than he deserves.
The Steelers lost this one.
And that didn’t make it easy for him.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .