The tour of the NFC West continues for the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-2) as they head to Santa Clara to battle the San Francisco 49ers (2-0) on Sunday at Levi's Stadium.
Pittsburgh lost at home to the Seattle Seahawks 28-26 last Sunday in its home opener. The bigger loss was the season-ending elbow injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. This injury has turned the Steelers' season upside down, and it will be up to Mason Rudolph and the defense to try and salvage things. Rudolph completed 12-of-19 passes for 112 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception in relief last week. The defense had zero answers for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks passing game in the second half. Wilson completed 29-of-35 passes for 300 yards and threw three touchdown passes. If it weren't a for a couple of fumbles by Chris Carson, this game would have been a more decisive victory for the Seahawks.
San Francisco has taken a great first step toward contending for a playoff spot in 2019. The 49ers went on the road to Tampa Bay and Cincinnati and took care of business in both games — after going winless on the road in 2018. The offense was lights out in the win over the Bengals, racking up 571 yards of offense on 68 plays. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was efficient throwing the football, completing 17-of-25 passes for 296 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. Matt Breida was excellent, rushing for 121 yards on 12 carries. On defense, San Francisco controlled the line of scrimmage, limiting the Bengals to just 25 yards on the ground and forcing them to be one dimensional all afternoon long.
Pittsburgh at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept 22 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: 49ers -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Mason Rudolph
It’s one thing to come off of the bench with a lot of adrenaline at home as a backup in the NFL and play well like Rudolph last week. Going on the road as a starter on a long trip out to the West Coast is a totally different beast. The Steelers are going to have to put Rudolph in a position to succeed by getting the ball out of his hands quickly against a 49ers pass rush that will be coming after him like crazy. Also, Pittsburgh has to stay committed to the run game from the opening kickoff. Pittsburgh called only 16 running plays last week against the Seahawks and gained just 81 yards. James Conner and the rest of the running back group will not maximize their potential by receiving limited touches. If the Steelers can run the ball well early, it will set up Rudolph to execute some play-action passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald and get some momentum for the offense as a whole.
2. 49ers offense vs. Steelers defense
The Steelers did a nice job early on last week of getting pressure on Russell Wilson from various angles. You can expect even more of a concerted effort by the Steelers to go after Garoppolo on Sunday. The best solution against an aggressive defense is to get the ball in the hands of tight end George Kittle on quickly developing routes. Kittle is putting up pretty good numbers (11 rec., 108 yards) so far in 2019. Kittle should be matched up against Pittsburgh linebacker Devin Bush, who struggled a bit last week against the Seahawks. Deebo Samuel is off to a good start as a rookie with eight catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. Look for Samuel to get matched up with Steven Nelson and possibly Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was acquired from the Miami Dolphins earlier this week.
3. Levi's Stadium environment
Steelers fans normally travel well, and it will be fascinating to see if the 0-2 start tempers the enthusiasm. Ever since the move to Santa Clara, San Francisco has struggled to create a hostile home environment. However, with the fast 2-0 start and expectations being higher in 2019, the time is now for Niners fans to make their presence felt. The Steelers will need to get off to a fast start and get the game into the second half with a chance to win late. If they fall behind early, it could create a snowball effect.
The Steelers have their backs against the wall and will give a good effort defensively, as Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt will test rookie left tackle Justin Skule from the opening snap. The 49ers are going to withstand the first couple of series, make some quality adjustments offensively and begin to gradually wear down the Steelers defense in the second half. Mason Rudolph will make a couple of plays but overall will turn in an uneven performance that will cost Pittsburgh at the end of the day. San Francisco will win by a couple of scores on Sunday thanks to its offensive balance and its ability to win the turnover battle.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Steelers 16
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.
(Top photo by Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers, courtesy of steelers.com)