Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: San Francisco steals one from Steelers by turning late turnover into TD
SANTA CLARA, Calif.
The story of this game wasn’t so much about the transition from Ben Roethlisberger to Mason Rudolph for the Pittsburgh Steelers as it was the turnovers.
Mostly, it was about what the San Francisco 49ers did with the two they forced.
And what the Steelers failed to do with the five they forced.
The 49ers followed James Conner’s fourth-quarter fumble with a touchdown, as Jimmy Garoppolo threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Dante Pettis with 1 minute, 15 seconds remaining for a 24-20 victory Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium.
That left the Steelers staring at an 0-3 record and a long flight home.
1. Turnover chain: The Steelers knew they needed to rely on the defense to carry them, and it didn’t disappoint by providing four first-half turnovers.
That it led to only six points was a problem.
T.J. Watt got it started by picking off a pass bobbled by Matt Breida and returning it to the San Francisco 33. The Steelers threw three short passes for 5 yards, settling for Chris Boswell’s 46-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Newly acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted a pass tipped by Joe Haden, returning it to the San Francisco 24. But the pocket collapsed on third down, and the Steelers settled for a 26-yard Boswell field goal and 6-0 lead.
The two drives accounted for 21 yards on 12 plays.
The defense gave the Steelers field position. In return, the offense gave the Steelers field goals.
At least they scored.
2. Red-zone robbery: San Francisco kept coming up empty.
The 49ers didn’t just give the ball away. They lost fumbles twice inside the Steelers 10.
Both followed big plays by the fullback.
Kyle Juszczyk made a fantastic diving catch for a 27-yard gain to the Steelers 28, only to see running back Raheem Mostert fumble after a hit by Fitzpatrick, and inside linebacker Devin Bush recovered it at the 9.
Later, Juszcyzk shed Fitzpatrick on a 22-yard catch to the Steelers 40, but Garoppolo fumbled the snap at the 7. Once again, Bush recovered for the Steelers.
The 49ers responded with a nine-play, 43-yard drive that ended with Robbie Gould’s 24-yard field goal. If not for the turnovers inside the 10, they could have gone into halftime leading by double digits instead of trailing 6-3.
3. Where’s JuJu?: Despite dealing four-time All-Pro Antonio Brown in the offseason, the Steelers weren’t as worried about who would serve as the their No. 1 receiver but rather who would emerge as the No. 2.
At halftime, they had neither.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, a Pro Bowl player last season, was practically invisible in the first half. The 49ers stacked the line of scrimmage, daring Rudolph to throw. And Smith-Schuster had two catches for 5 yards on four targets.
Then, with a third-and-4 at the 24, Rudolph found Smith-Schuster with a step on cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. Smith-Schuster got to the left sideline and raced 76 yards for touchdown and a 13-10 lead at 5:42 of the third quarter.
4. Third and good: The Steelers struggled on third downs, converting only 2 of 8 in the first half and allowing the 49ers to convert five of their first eight.
Garoppolo found tight end George Kittle, who beat Fitzpatrick over the middle for an 11-yard gain on a third-and-6 to set up the second-quarter field goal.
In the third quarter, Garoppolo hit wide receiver Kendrick Bourne on a crossing pattern for a 22-yard gain on third-and-8. Three plays later, on third-and-goal, Jeff Wilson Jr. scored on a 1-yard run to give the 49ers a 10-6 lead.
And San Francisco converted a third-and-1 at its own 34, with Garoppolo running for 2 yards, on the 10-play scoring drive capped by a Wilson 4-yard run for a 17-13 lead.
5. Diontae for Donte: Donte Moncrief’s drops didn’t just get him demoted. They got him benched.
And Diontae Johnson got his first career start.
Moncrief was inactive after being credited with four dropped passes in the opener at the New England, then having one go off his hands for a momentum-changing interception against Seattle.
Johnson made a key play, just one play after 49ers backup corner Jason Verrett was called for a pass interference penalty on James Washington.
Rudolph lofted a pretty pass to Johnson for a 39-yard touchdown to give the Steelers a 20-17 lead with 10:22 left, the first of Johnson’s career. But the celebration soon soured, when Watt’s fumble recovery at the 14 was followed by Conner’s fumble that gave the 49ers a second chance.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .