5 things we learned from Steelers’ 24-20 loss to 49ers
Here are five things we learned from the San Francisco 49ers’ 24-20 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
1. Working out the bugs
Befitting the Steelers’ first trip to Silicon Valley, the offense spent nearly 40 minutes operating like it had been hacked by a computer virus.
Through the first eight series, the Steelers had 93 yards of total offense, six first downs and a long gain of 10 yards. Still, they only trailed by four points on their ninth drive. On a third-and-4, the Steelers finally got a big play when JuJu Smith-Schuster took a crossing route and went 76 yards for a touchdown and 13-10 lead.
A 39-yard hookup from Mason Rudolph to Diontae Johnson provided a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter, but those two passes would be the extent of the long gains for the Steelers.
While the 49ers had 10 plays covering at least 13 yards, the Steelers didn’t have any other plays among their 51 that exceeded 10 yards. The play calling was conservative, perhaps as a concession to Rudolph making his first NFL start. But Rudolph showed the setting wasn’t too big for him when given chances to throw down the field in the second half.
That was one positive the Steelers could take from the loss.
2. Running in place
For an offense that features three Pro Bowl players on the line and another in the backfield, the Steelers sure have trouble running the ball consistently. That was evident again as the line failed to create enough push for James Conner, who had 45 yards on 13 carries and the game-changing fumble in the fourth quarter.
What’s troublesome is that Conner’s yardage represented a single-game high for a Steelers running back this season. The Steelers remained committed to the run — they had 22 attempts vs. 27 passes — even though the 49ers often had eight players near the line of scrimmage and had single coverage on the wide receivers.
Conner had a long gain of 10 yards but averaged less than three yards on his other 12 attempts. That’s unacceptable for a team that boasts such a veteran group of blockers. The Steelers didn’t even bother trotting out the jumbo package with Zach Banner serving as an extra blocker. Banner never left the bench.
3. Tightening up
The Steelers got an extended look of what the offense looks like without tight end Vance McDonald on the field as a shoulder injury kept him out of the game for almost the final three quarters.
After being largely ignored as a pass-catching option in the season opener at New England, McDonald got more involved against Seattle and had two touchdown catches. Against the 49ers, his contribution consisted of one catch for 10 yards.
In his absence, the Steelers got one reception for 3 yards from Xavier Grimble, while rookie Zach Gentry wasn’t targeted in a brief appearance — his first in the NFL. Grimble was used mostly as a blocker, but his contributions to the running game were minimal.
4. Insider trading
Not only did inside linebacker Mark Barron get called for holding, which extended the 49ers’ game-winning drive, he collided with cornerback Steve Nelson at the goal line on the 5-yard touchdown pass to Dante Pettis that put the 49ers ahead for good.
Barron’s contributions in the game were negligible. While rookie inside linebacker Devin Bush recovered two fumbles and had a team-high 11 tackles, Barron finished with one tackle. The Steelers were hurt by not having Vince Williams available to help ease the burden at the position.
5. Rush to judgment
The 49ers played without six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, but the Steelers were unable to take advantage of his absence. With rookie sixth-round pick Justin Skule in the lineup, the 49ers still rushed for 168 yards while averaging 4.2 yards per carry. And 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was sacked just once, for a 9-yard loss by Stephon Tuitt on the second series.
Bud Dupree lined up across from Skule and had a tackle for loss, quarterback hit and pass defensed, but he couldn’t get consistent pressure on Garoppolo despite the favorable matchup.
It was the second game this season that the Steelers, who led the NFL in sacks the past two seasons, were held to a single quarterback takedown.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .