Positional Grades: Steelers Vs 49ers

Well, 0-3 is a tough pill to swallow for the Pittsburgh Steelers, especially when the new-look defense forced 5 turnovers. That’s the story though after Sunday’s 24-20 loss on the road to the San Francisco 49ers.

The Steelers’ offense looked terrible for a majority of the game and largely handed the game to the 49ers late, thanks to a James Conner fumble deep in Steelers territory.

Offensive execution and play calling left a lot to be desired, especially when the lackluster performance throughout the day forced the defense back onto the field time and time again following short drives, leaving the defensive unit gassed late. San Francisco ran 73 plays on the day to 51 for the Steelers, while nearly doubling up the Steelers in time of possession on the day.

That’s not a winning formula.

A winless start to the season through 3 weeks stinks. Let’s get through these grades.

QB — C-

Early on Mason Rudolph looked nervous, which was to be expected in his first career NFL start.

However, after the first 10-15 plays that were scripted, it felt like offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner didn’t do much to help Rudolph succeed against a stacked box as the Niners dared Rudolph to beat them.

The second-year product out of Oklahoma State struggled with ball placement early on, throwing high and behind a few guys, but once he settled in he threw some strikes, namely to JuJu Smith-Schuster on his 76-yard jaunt down the left sideline, as well as a great touch pass to Diontae Johnson on his 39-yard score.

Rudolph held the ball too long a few times, but I liked the willingness to pull the ball down and push forward on the ground, showing no fear in sacrificing his body a few times.

Make no mistake though: Fitchner has to do a much better job next week helping his young quarterback out, and the offensive line needs to get going in a hurry.

RB — C-

Conner has a fumbling problem, and that problem reared its ugly head in the worst possible situation Sunday afternoon in the Bay Area.

That lost fumble deep in Pittsburgh’s own end ultimately cost the Steelers the game.

However, I thought Conner played about as well as you can for a running back facing an 8-man box and running behind an offensive line that didn’t get much push on the day. Fans need to stop looking at the box score and checking yards per carry. It’s all about successful run rate, and on the day Conner was successful on 46.9 percent of his runs. You want a running back to be around 50 percent on the day.

He ran hard between the tackles and put his head down, getting as many yards as he could.  The 3.3 yards per carry is ugly in the box score, but Conner isn’t the problem in the run game. It’s a schematic issue, and I don’t see how it gets better anytime soon.

Benny Snell Jr. got a few short-yardage carries and ran hard, but he isn’t going to change the outlook of games at this point.

Side note: can Jaylen Samuels please get some work in the backfield? This is getting a bit ridiculous.

WR — C-

Once again, Sunday’s showing against the 49ers was another example that Steelers wide receivers can’t consistently get open within the scheme. That’s a major concern, especially when you want to try and create easy throws beyond the line of scrimmage for Rudolph moving forward to help him grow.

That said, Johnson ran a great route against Jason Verrett for the touchdown, while Smith-Schuster showed his ability to once again make a splash play after the catch. I’ll be curious to see the All-22 of James Washington’s day. It seems like the Steelers had him reigned in once again until late, when he drew the pass interference on Verrett that ultimately led to Johnson’s touchdown.

Let the wild horse loose.

I’m also very surprised the Steelers didn’t dial up a deep shot for Johnny Holton. That’s what he’s there for. Get him some work.

TE — D+

Once Vance McDonald went down it was going to be a bad, bad day for Steelers tight ends, especially playing an 8- and 9-man box at times.

Xavier Grimble really struggled as a blocker on the day, which essentially had the Steelers playing shorthanded against the stacked box. As a receiver, Grimble isn’t much of a threat. The 49ers weren’t worried about him, which allowed San Francisco to keep coverage rolled to more important pass catchers.

Prior to McDonald’s injury, I liked what I saw as a run blocker and as a receiving threat. He made a play on a screen pass deep in his own end, and then found himself open down the field, but Rudolph missed.

The Steelers need to figure out how to get McDonald more involved moving forward as that dynamic threat he was last season, not this short-yardage tight end that isn’t used to spread the field.

OL — D-

On a number of pass attempts, Rudolph got way too deep in his drops, making for easier rush arcs off the edge for San Francisco, but aside from that the Steelers offensive line had a rough showing on the afternoon.

Something has to physically be wrong with Alejandro Villanueva. There’s just very little power there, and he seems unsure of himself in some of his pass sets. There’s just no way the loss of Mike Munchak caused Villanueva to completely fall off like this.

Ramon Foster and David DeCastro had strong days inside. When the Steelers ran the ball successfully, they followed those guys.

Matt Feiler had a pretty bad game. He matched up with Dee Ford and really had no answers for the combination of speed and power that Ford threw at him. Then, when it came time to run block, Feiler couldn’t match up with DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead in the trenches.

It was a frustrating afternoon for the hog mollies up front. They’ll get better.

DL — B-

Stephon Tuitt appears poised for a monster year. Right now, there’s not an offensive lineman in football that can consistently block him.

Tuitt recorded a sack for the second straight week, 7 tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit. He played so well against the run, including back-to-back huge stops in the redzone. He’s healthy and playing at a high level. That’s terrific to see.

Javon Hargrave added 5 tackles and a quarterback hit in the loss. Hargrave was a problem for 49ers center Weston Richburg. He got off blocks quickly and clogs lanes against the run.

Cam Heyward played possessed out there on Sunday. He’s a tremendous leader and lets his play do the talking. Here’s hoping his injury suffered late in nothing serious, because there’s not a better leader for this young defense moving forward.

LB — C-

Mark Barron was picked on for the second straight week, and ultimately cost the Steelers late with his holding call against George Kittle before then getting beat by Dante Pettis for the game-winning touchdown.

Barron was brought in to help shore up the coverage issues at linebacker, and he’s gotten off to a bad start. He was torched by fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the first half, and really didn’t have much of an impact against the run.

Vince Williams needs to get healthy fast.

TJ Watt was a dominant force once again off the edge, giving Mike McGlinchey all he could handle on the afternoon, finishing with 2 quarterback hits, countless pressures and an interception.  He’s developing into a flat-out star. Don’t even try to argue against that.

Bud Dupree played the run well for the Steelers, and his pressure on Jimmy Garappolo in the first half led to an interception. Overall though, he’s just not getting to the quarterback consistently enough, and when he does he can’t finish.

I thought overall Devin Bush had a strong game, leading the Steelers with 11 tackles and 2 fumble recoveries. His speed was on display throughout the game, and he’s a very sure tackler. Once he gets comfortable in coverage, look out.

DB — B

I thought this group was really, really good on the afternoon.

Minkah Fitzpatrick looks like the absolute real deal at this point. Right away, Fitzpatrick made more plays on the football than every Steelers safety in the last 4 years. That’s a huge exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like. It seems like there’s going to be some real stability and upside back there.

Terrell Edmunds had another strong game. He’s really good when he’s allowed to read what’s happening in front of him and flies downhill to the football. He still has issues in coverage, but he has the makings of a really good box safety.

Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were once again solid on the outside. There are really no issues with that tandem, at least from me. They’re playing as well as they can within the scheme. Haden’s pass breakup led right to Fitzpatrick’s interception.

Where the 49ers succeeded was on over routes built off of play-action. The Steelers need to be more disciplined, taking away those throwing windows over the middle in man coverage on the back half.

Special Teams — B-

My only real gripe with the special teams on the day is the punt coverage units as Richie James Jr. had a really good day returning punts.

Artie Burns looked completely disinterested and was ultimately benched after two missed tackles on punts. That’s what he’s on the 53-man roster for. That’s not going to cut it.

Outside of the punt coverage unit, Chris Boswell continues to appear all the way back. It’s great to feel confident in 9 once again as he drilled both field goal attempts and both extra point tries. He hasn’t missed a kick on the year.

Jordan Berry really crushed the ball on Sunday, averaging nearly 53 yards a punt. His net average would be better if guys could tackle the returner. Small steps forward though for Berry.

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