One of the most crucial moments late in the game for the Pittsburgh Steelers was, of all things, a penalty. On third down and 11 from the 14-yard line inside the red zone, the San Francisco 49ers looked like they would have to settle for a game-tying field goal. Cameron Sutton defended a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo intended for Dante Pettis in the end zone. It hit the ground. Fourth down.
Or not. The yellow laundry was out. Holding, defense, number 26. Five-yard penalty. Automatic first down.
That’s Mark Barron, the free agent linebacker who is a full-time starter at least until Vince Williams gets back healthy. The latter was shelved all week with a bum hamstring, but Barron has been playing significant snaps, even starting, in the first two weeks.
The former first-round pick was in coverage on 49ers All-Pro tight end George Kittle. And he offered his own opinion about how that play went down after the game. From Brooke Pryor, the new Steelers beat writer for ESPN:
“I don’t know what it looked like to everyone else, but I know what happened to me. I just felt like the guy ran into me. I just absorbed him. I didn’t get my hands off him fast enough and that was the call”.
To his credit, his after-the-fact description of the play isn’t way off the mark. Kittle did pretty much run right up into his frame. The problem is that he grabbed told of the tight end and didn’t let go, certainly not fast enough. It was a definite penalty and was the difference between the 49ers kicking a potential game-tying field goal at the two-minute warning and the Steelers getting the ball back with 1:15 to play trailing by four.
By no means can the loss be boiled down to that one incident. There were so many things that went wrong, or so many things that weren’t capitalized on, over the course of 60 minutes, that conspired to lead to this 24-20 result, the Steelers’ third loss and three games to begin the year.
It was, if anything, a summary of all of those collective failures. That even when they make a play, they don’t, or they can’t take advantage of it. How else do you describe it when your defense gets five turnovers and you score six points in total off of them, with two drives starting in field goal range?
The loss isn’t Barron’s fault, though he didn’t have a particularly good game, finishing with one tackle. Coverage with him has been an adventure so far, and that was an area the Steelers were hoping they were improving with his signing. Clearly, there is more work that must be put in. By him, and by about 52 others.