The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to embark on a side story in the saga of Ben Roethlisberger in a potential preview for what is to come after–a truncated 14-game season for second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph. Drafted last year in the third round, with a first-round grade on him, the Oklahoma State product makes his first career start this afternoon against the San Francisco 49ers.
And it appears that his primary wide receivers will be JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson. Donte Moncrief, the veteran on the roster who has three catches for seven yards on 11 targets with four drops on the year, is an inactive. One can argue he is a ‘healthy’ scratch, having dressed for the past two games, even though a training camp finger injury continues to be an issue.
Some heavy special teams hitters are also prominent on the inactive list–Roosevelt Nix, Anthony Chickillo, and Vince Williams–so that will be something to take note of in this game. Rookies Zach Gentry and Justin Layne get hats today in their place.
The Steelers got some good news before gametime with both the Ravens and Bengals losing, so there’s some opportunity to make up some ground today with a win following an 0-2 start. Of course, that will be easier said than done.
The Steelers deferred, the 49ers opening with a play-action connection to George Kittle. Two plays in, a running back screen pass was bobbled and ended up in T.J. Watt’s hands for the defense’s first interception of the year.
Rudolph’s first play as a starter, from the San Fran 33, was a screen for no gain. A bubble screen to Smith-Schuster on second down lost yardage. This time an inside screen to Smith-Schuster got about seven yards to put Chris Boswell in-range to at least salvage points off the turnover. He was good from 46, giving Pittsburgh an early 3-0 lead.
Matt Breida, the target on the intercepted pass, ran for four yards on first down on the 49ers’ second drive. He got eight on second down. Stephon Tuitt buried Garoppolo for a sack for a loss of nine on the next play. Under pressure again, he got off a short pass to Kittle, tackled by Devin Bush for five yards. On third and 14, they converted in front of Steven Nelson for 16.
The handoff was bobbled on the next play, trickling back for lost yardage, but the Steelers should have been able to recover it. Officially a loss of 18. Now second and 28, from the 30, a play-action slant went to Deebo Samuel for 13 ahead of Mike Hilton. Now third and 15, another screen to Kittle came well short of the marker for a punt. Ryan Switzer was back to receive, not Johnson, this going for a touchback.
James Conner picked up five up the middle on the first carry of the game. He tripped in the backfield on second down for no gain. Now third and five from the 25, Rudolph’s pass was behind Johnson, incomplete, but off the receiver’s hand. Jordan Berry’s punt was fielded at the 20 and returned to about the 28 after Johnny Holton couldn’t make an arm tackle initially.
With Chickillo out, Ola Adeniyi began rotating in. Breida was stuffed for a loss of a yard on the first play. Now second down, Garoppolo’s pass was picked off again, once again off the deflection, this by Minkah Fitzpatrick, the new safety. Another drive inside 49ers territory. Bud Dupree brought the pressure on the play.
From the 24, Rudolph hit Washington off play action on a flat route, out of bounds for eight yards. Inside the 20 now, Conner fought his way forward for the two to get a new set of downs. At the 13, Rudolph looked for Smith-Schuster in the end zone, over his head and incomplete. Four wide, the second-down play was an inside screen to Conner for four yards. Now third and six, Rudolph escaped heavy pressure in the backfield but could only get a yard past the line of scrimmage before being brought down. Boswell was able to make it 6-0 off of two turnovers that began inside of opponent territory. It’s better than nothing, but of course leaves much to be desired.
A short kickoff was returned out to the 31. Mostert was limited to about two yards on first down. A completion to Kittle for the first down followed. From the 45, the fullback won on a wheel route deep downfield to the 28 for 39 yards. After a three-yard run, Mostert with an inside cut picked up the first down, but Fitzpatrick was able to knock the ball loose, ultimately recovered by Bush, his second fumble recovery of the year.
Getting a first down off a screen to get away from their own goal line to start the drive was a wise approach. Back to the ground with Conner, he got four yards off the left side. Now second and six, out of a pony backfield, Rudolph overthrew Vance McDonald, who took a hit from the safety as a result. Free shot in that situation. Now third and long, he couldn’t connect wide with Johnson for another stalled drive, this one again deep in their own end. Berry’s punt was fielded at the 23, returned to the 38.
Another big play to the fullback for 22 yards. Fitzpatrick missed the tackle initially to allow YAC. From the Steelers’ 40, Garoppolo found Goodwin off play action, and then Fitzpatrick was flagged for roughing the passer, putting the 49ers in the red zone.
From the 12, Breida was cut down for a loss by Watt, but Javon Hargrave was flagged for holding. Now first and goal from the seven. After an incompletion on a fade, the 49ers bobbled another exchange, Bush recovering his second fumble of the game.
In the interim, McDonald was declared questionable to return with a shoulder injury, no doubt from the shot he took on the overthrow mentioned above.
Taking over from their own seven, Rudolph threw incomplete over the middle off play action. He couldn’t complete to Xavier Grimble over the middle. Now third and 10, Rudolph scrambled after finding nothing open, tackled after a yard. SF had good coverage on the play. An illegal shift added five yards to a good 49ers punt return, putting them in Steelers territory.
Garoppolo got a pass away on second and two under pressure for a first down, Terrell Edmunds on the blitz. At the 26, Breida got about four. Watt was in Garoppolo’s face to bat the ball down on second down. Now third and six, however, he completed to Kittle for the first down, Fitzpatrick cutting him down low after the conversion.
At the 11, George Wilson was stopped following a three-yard gain, but a hold negated the play. Back to the 21, a shovel pass was dropped for an incompletion. Well, not dropped. It bounced off a lineman’s ass, to be honest. Hilton forced Breida out of bounds following a five-yard completion. Now third and 15, needing the one-yard line for a first down, they ran a draw with Mostert for about 10. Robbie Gould make it a 6-3 game.
Conner lost two yards on a wide run right to start the Steelers’ next drive. He picked up four to set up a third and seven. Rudolph threw complete on the play to Johnson, making two tacklers miss to pick up the needed yardage.
Back to the ground, Conner picked up maybe two after the team’s first conversion on third down of the day. Johnny Holton got nine on the reverse for another first. At the 46, Benny Snell checked in up the middle for four, his first non-situational touch. Snell again, this time for four. On third and four, Rudolph scrambled for the first, another third-down conversion to the 49ers’ 42.
After the two-minute warning, off play action, Rudolph’s pass for Smith-Schuster was broken up by Richard Sherman. Johnson wide open in the left flat picked up a gain of six. Now third and four, manageable, Rudolph was sacked by Dee Ford, beating Matt Feiler. Ford was questionable to play coming into the game. On fourth and nine now from the 41, Berry’s punt went for a touchback.
After a loss of five on first down, the Steelers let the clock run out even though they had three timeouts.