Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
For the first time in seven years the San Francisco 49ers have a winning record going into Week 3 of the NFL season. The coach back then was Jim Harbaugh, and he was about to lead the team to within a few feet of the team’s sixth Super Bowl championship. That season, the Week 3 opponent was the Christian Ponder-led Minnesota Vikings, on the road, and they lost 24-13, falling to 2-1. This season the Niners host the Pittsburgh Steelers for their first home game of the 2019 season.
The Steelers, for the first time in recent memory, will take the field without Ben Roethlisberger starting at quarterback. This could be a positive or a negative for the Robert Saleh-led defense. Last week, Mason Rudolph took over and played well for the Steelers, nearly winning the game. The lack of professional film on Rudolph will make Saleh’s job of preparing his defense a little more difficult. What will make Saleh’s job a bit easier is that Steelers running back James Conner is also coming into the game with a sore knee and with only 54 yards rushing through the first two games. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown that he can be as dynamic without Antonio Brown lined up on the other side of the field.
With the 49ers pass rush turning into one of the best in the NFL, the Steelers could easily give up twice as many sacks this Sunday than they have over the first two games (2). With Nick Bosa leading the league in QB pressures, and sacks coming from all over the front line, Rudolph will have difficulty reading where the rush is coming from, and fans should expect the young quarterback to take to his legs more often than Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin would like him to.
The 49ers’ biggest challenge comes from their own offensive line. The loss of Joe Staley can’t be overstated, as he has been the rock and cornerstone of the offensive line for over a decade. It appears that the Niners are willing to trot out rookie Justin Skule in Staley’s place for the time being. No big trades have happened to replace Staley, with the only roster action being the signing of Will Holden, a 2017 fifth-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals who has bounced around enough practice squads for the last year.
Because of this, everyone should be watching how head coach Kyle Shanahan schemes his offense out of this predicament. Expect most of the rush attempts to be directed at the right side of the line. This also means expect quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to roll out to the left side of the offense in play-action, a staple of any Shanahan offense.
The other challenge the 49ers offense will have is going against recently traded for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers sent a first-round pick to the Miami Dolphins this week for Fitzpatrick and they expect him to play on Sunday. Everyone is anxious to see where he will play, as it could be at the slot, at outside cornerback, or safety. Although Fitzpatrick is an extremely talented defender, it will be difficult for him to pick up an entire defense in just a few days. Fans should expect Shanahan as a play caller to attempt to exploit this by creating misdirection plays on offense, in an attempt to confuse a newly-formed defense.
This was supposed to be the 49ers’ first real challenge, but if the now-shaky offensive line (they have been one of the best through three games) can hold off the likes of T.J. Watt and Devin Bush, Garoppolo should be able to pick apart a secondary that gave up plenty of first downs to a less-explosive Seattle Seahawks offense. If the running back trio of Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, Jr. can run wild on the Steelers defense like they did against the Cincinnati Bengals and Skule can keep Garoppolo’s backside clean, the game should be a runaway win for the 49ers, which would leave the team undefeated, and the Steelers winless three weeks into the season.
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