The Pittsburgh Steelers head into Week 3 of the NFL season with an 0-2 record and plenty of question marks. Coach Mike Tomlin’s team is 0-2 for the first time since 2013 and the going won’t get any easier with a trip to San Francisco up next. The Steelers won’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is sidelined for the rest of the year due to an elbow injury suffered against Seattle. Mason Rudolph will take control of the offense, and the second-year quarterback impressed after stepping into the No. 1 role in the second half versus Seattle.
Although Pittsburgh is off to an 0-2 start, this team still has one of the league’s top offensive lines, a solid one-two punch at running back with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, along with a defense that should be better than what the stat sheet has showed through two games.
How can the Steelers get back on track in Week 3? Here are five things to watch:
Establish the Run
Rudolph was confident in his first extended action during a regular season game in Week 2. The second-year passer connected on 12 of 19 throws for 112 yards and two scores. However, with more pressure on his shoulders as the starter, Rudolph needs even more help from his supporting cast. Pittsburgh has just 113 rushing yards on 29 attempts through two contests. Conner is dealing with a knee injury but could play this week. If he can’t go, Samuels and rookie Benny Snell will tote the rock for Pittsburgh. With the pieces up front in the trenches, along with Conner, Snell and Samuels, there’s no excuse for the Steelers to average 3.9 yards per carry and less than 60 yards a game on the ground.
Help for JuJu
Replacing Antonio Brown’s production and ability to be the focal point of the passing game wasn’t going to be easy. Pittsburgh attempted to mitigate some of the damage by signing Donte Moncrief and drafting Diontae Johnson from Toledo. Moncrief has struggled mightily with dropped passes, including a deflected ball that was intercepted against Seattle. Moncrief was relegated to the sideline after that play and it’s uncertain how big of a role he will have in Week 3. It’s no secret JuJu Smith-Schuester will be the No. 1 target. But for Rudolph to thrive, he will need help from James Washington, Johnson and potentially Moncrief. Tight end Vance McDonald should see more targets.
Big Plays on Offense
Pittsburgh hasn’t had a run longer than 23 yards or a pass play that extended beyond 45 yards through the first two weeks of the season. Can Rudolph connect on a big play or two with Washington on Sunday? Although Rudolph played well against Seattle, San Francisco will likely aim to stuff the run and force the second-year passer beat them through the air. Can Rudolph pick up where he left off and prevent the 49ers from loading the box?
Fix the Communication Issues on Defense
The Steelers invested big in their defense this offseason. The team signed cornerback Steven Nelson away from the Chiefs, inked linebacker Mark Barron to a two-year deal and traded up to get linebacker Devin Bush at pick No. 10. However, those investments have yet to yield results. Through two games, Pittsburgh is giving up 30.5 points a game and ranks 29th in total defense. In addition to iffy tackling and a lack of turnovers, the defense has had some communication issues. Will newly acquired defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick be ready to play for the Steelers this week? If so, communication for a player just acquired will be key. Can Tomlin and coordinator Keith Butler find the right fix this week?
Force More Turnovers
Forcing more turnovers was a priority for the defense in 2019. So far, the Steelers only have two takeaways this season. While luck and randomness play a role in this area, forcing more takeaways certainly wouldn’t hurt with Rudolph under center the rest of the year.