Perhaps the single-most unfortunate and most consequential moment in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ lost yesterday evening to the San Francisco 49ers, knocking them down to 0-3 to start the season, was the untimely fourth-quarter fumble by third-year running back James Conner, which came with 5:36 remaining and the team up by a score of 20-17 at the time.
The Steelers had, in fact, just recovered a fumble from their own seven-yard line as the 49ers offense was about to score. But on third and goal, they botched the snap, the ball hitting directly off the facemask of a receiver going in motion right in front of Jimmy Garoppolo.
Pittsburgh recovered at the 14 and Conner picked up a first down on two plays, first a run, then a reception. But he lost the ball after trying to lunge forward on his third consecutive touch, trying to avoid lost yardage after being hit in the backfield. After recovering three fumbles, it was time for the Steelers to lose one.
Mason Rudolph was asked about that moment after the game, and he had the perfect response to it. “I made plenty of mistakes all day. No one’s pointing a finger in this offense. We love each other and we’re gonna rally together”, he said. Of course, he threw a bad interception earlier in the game, himself, which the 49ers capitalized on with a touchdown, as they did off of Conner’s turnover.
“We still had a chance. I said, ‘hey, stay positive, we’ve got another chance to get the ball back and go score, and you’re gonna run the game-winning touchdown’”, Rudolph told reporters of his message to his back. “We always think positive and we always try to play the next play, quickly”.
Unfortunately, it would be over four minutes by the time they got the ball back, and at that point, San Francisco had put the ball in the end zone and taken a 24-20 lead. Rudolph got the football back in his hands with 1:09 to play following a short kick return by Johnny Holton that placed their starting field position at their own 22.
Things did not go well, however. Following an incompletion on a throwaway, Rudolph had to scramble on second down, picking up seven yards. He was sacked on third and three, losing the ball, but Matt Feiler was able to fall on it. His pass to James Washington on fourth and 12 fell incomplete, ending the game.
Any time you get off to an 0-3 run, whether that’s at the start of the season or otherwise, there are probably going to be major individual failures along the way to help account for that. Getting on the one who drops the ball—sometimes literally—however, doesn’t help the offense move forward.