The Pittsburgh Steelers will play their third regular season game of 2019 Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, against the San Francisco 49ers as they look to notch their first win of the season. Below are seven key things that I believe the Steelers will need to do in the game to come away with a big road win against the 49ers.
Arrrrr Pee Ohs – Yes, this is the NFL and not the Big 12 that Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph is now playing in but with that said, RPOs are still used quite a bit on Sundays. Rudolph ran an RPO-heavy offense at Oklahoma State and Steelers wide receiver James Washington was part of that as well. Don’t be surprised if the Steelers offense runs quite a few RPOs on Sunday against the 49ers and they really should because they’ll get Rudolph settled into game with simple reads. The Steelers have the offensive personnel to run a few RPOs effectively against the 49ers as well.
Be deep thinkers – If there’s one thing Rudolph did well in college it was throwing the deep ball and especially to Washington, who also ended up becoming a member of the Steelers. The Steelers offense isn’t going to be able to small ball the 49ers defense to death on Sunday so Rudolph will absolutely need to take some shots deep during the game. If he sees Washington, JuJu Smith-Schuster or Johnny Holton lined up outside at the Z position against press coverage with just one safety deep, Rudolph will need to take a shot. A few craftily executed switch-route combinations wouldn’t be bad to break out on Sunday as well. While Rudolph might not have the strongest arm in the NFL, he’s damn accurate and can really sling it, according to his college tape.
Ready, set, action! – In relief of injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last week, Rudolph was 5 of 7 passing for 53 yards with one touchdown. A few plays included him being under center as well. The Steelers offense hasn’t used very much play action the last few years with Roethlisberger at quarterback and that should change effectively immediately now that Rudolph has taken over. Play action can be run out of shotgun and as part of RPOs as well. The more play action is used by the Steelers offense on Sunday the better.
Ready, set, action, part two! – The Steelers defense better be ready to see a ton of play action out of the 49ers offense on Sunday. Through two games of the 2019 regular season, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is 15 of 19 passing for 280 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions when using play action. The 49ers will use play action out of all their personnel groupings and formations, so the Steelers defense need to make sure they not only read their keys well on Sunday, but don’t allow themselves to be heavily influenced by it. Getting the 49ers offense in as many third and long situations as possible on Sunday will help to take play action out of the equation.
No deadly explosions – In the Steelers first two games of the 2019 regular season, the team’s defense has allowed 12 explosive plays of 20 yards or longer and five of those went for touchdowns. 10 of those 12 explosive plays were passes and four of them went for touchdowns. Explosive plays change games and the Steelers don’t have the offense or defense to attempt to race opponents to plus-2 TOX wins. If the defense stops giving up so many explosive plays during games and if the ones they do give up don’t culminate in touchdowns, the team will be in a lot of games moving forward and especially when it comes to their game on Sunday against the 49ers.
Misdirection corrections – The 49ers offense will run a lot of misdirection against the Steelers defense on Sunday and especially early. Quite a few of these will be runs as they attempt to stretch out the Steelers defense horizontally prior to attacking the unit vertically. The Steelers inside linebacker duo of rookie Devin Bush and veteran Mark Barron really need a strong game Sunday against the run. Shutting down the 49ers running game on early downs and getting Garoppolo in multiple third and longs could wind up being the difference in the game.
Plus two takeaways – The Steelers defense has yet to register an interception this season and since Week 3 of the 2018 regular season the Keith Butler-led unit has just four interceptions in total. Sunday against the 49ers, the Steelers will have a second-year quarterback in Rudolph making his first career NFL start and the Oklahoma State product must be provided a short field or two to help the offense’s cause. Conversely, Rudolph and the Steelers offense can’t afford to turnover the football on Sunday against the 49ers. Even one offensive turnover per game could wind up being one too many the next several weeks. It’s time for the Steelers defense that’s filled with high draft picks to start pulling their weight and more.