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Statement game: Beating Steelers would be huge for 49ers

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SANTA CLARA — If the 49ers beat the Steelers, we’ll know the 49ers are a good team, maybe a playoff team. If they lose to the Steelers, we’ll know the 49ers haven’t arrived yet.

Statement game.

The 49ers’ record is 2-0, but they haven’t beaten a good team. They’ve beaten the Buccaneers and Bengals, two perennial losers.

The Steelers’ record is 0-2, they’re 6½-point underdogs and they don’t have their franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. He’s out for the year with an elbow injury.

But the Steelers have played two perennial winners — the Patriots and Seahawks. No shame in losing to them. And the Steelers’ offense played better after Roethlisberger injured himself last week — he looked like he was in serious pain.

And the Steelers haven’t had a losing season since 2003. They’re one of the toughest, most consistent teams in the NFL, and they’re not rebuilding. In fact, they just traded their first-round draft pick in 2020 for free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. They expect to win. They won’t beat themselves like the Bucs did Week 1, or quit at halftime like the Bengals did last week.

“We’ve got to come out just as hungry as Pittsburgh,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said this week. “I know it’s going to be an extremely hard, physical game.”

Here are the five biggest challenges the 49ers will face against the Steelers.

1. Game-planning for the Steelers offense without Roethlisberger: Roethlisberger’s replacement, Mason Rudolph, knows more or less what to expect from the 49ers defensive scheme on Sunday. He faced a version of it last week when he played the Seahawks, who use basically the same defense as the 49ers.

And Rudolph played well. He completed 12 of his final 16 passes. His quarterback rating was 92.4, and it would have been 122.0 had Donte Moncrief not tipped a perfectly placed pass to the defense for an interception. The Steelers benched Moncrief this week.

“In my honest opinion, Pittsburgh has a really good quarterback sitting there with (Rudolph),” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He’s got a good arm. He’s accurate. He knows exactly where to go with the football so you can tell he’s very well prepared. I’m just really impressed with his tape, much more so than I thought I’d be when I actually turned it on.”

Rudolph comes into Sunday’s game with an air of mystery. He knows how the 49ers defense functions, but the 49ers don’t know how the Steelers offense will attack them with Rudolph at quarterback.

“That’s been the big question for us,” Saleh said. “They could very easily go big and run all day, or they can go empty (backfield) like they’ve done with Ben and throw the football all day. I think Rudolph is capable of doing both. We’ll figure it out within the first 15 plays on Sunday.”

Meaning Saleh must adjust on the sideline during the game. Not easy, but not impossible for an excellent coordinator like him.

2. Covering Juju Smith-Schuster: He’s an elite wide receiver and the best player on the Steelers. Last season, he caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He usually lines up in the slot.

When the Steelers played New England Week 1, Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore covered Smith-Schuster almost every play, no matter where he lined up — outside or in the slot. Gilmore shadowed him.

The 49ers’ corners don’t shadow receivers. Richard Sherman always plays on the left side of the defense and Ahkello Witherspoon always plays on the right. When Smith-Schuster lines up in the slot, he will face the 49ers’ nickel corner, either K’Waun Williams or Jimmie Ward.

Ward has missed the first two games with a broken finger. Last week, Williams gave up 112 yards and two touchdown catches against the Bengals. He was the worst player on the defense.

The 49ers haven’t said which player will start at nickel back against the Steeleers. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Saleh said.

Whichever nickel back they choose, Ward or Williams, that player must be terrific against Smith-Schuster when he lines up in the slot.

3. Running the ball against the Steelers’ 3-4 defense: On a conference call with Bay Area reporters this week, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained why the 49ers are 2-0: “They’re running the ball extremely well, so they’re not behind the chains. They’re controlling situational football, and that makes you a tough unit to beat. It’s pretty clear why they’re undefeated at this point.”

Translation: The Steelers want to shut down the 49ers’ rushing attack and put the game in Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands. Make him the reason the 49ers win or lose.

The Steelers may have what it takes to execute that plan. The Steelers use a 3-4 defense (three defensive linemen, four linebackers). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers use the same defense, and they limited the 49ers to 98 rushing yards and 3.1 yards per carry Week 1.

The 49ers like to run outside the tackles. This is extremely difficult to do against a 3-4 defense, because the outside linebackers set the edges of the defense and force the running back to cut back between the tackles.

The 49ers may have to pass their way to victory.

4. Protecting Jimmy Garoppolo: This could be tricky. The 49ers don’t have their franchise left tackle, Joe Staley. He fractured his fibula against the Bengals and will miss six to eight weeks.

His replacement is not a veteran with starting experience. It’s Justin Skule, a rookie sixth-round pick.

“When you put a rookie out there, especially someone going into his first game, you’ve always got to think of how to help him,” Shanahan said.

Skule does certain things well. He has quick feet and blocks effectively during run plays. But he lacks strength, and struggles in pass protection — that’s why he was a sixth-rounder and not a first-rounder or a second-rounder. NFL pass rushers can push Skule straight back into the quarterback.

Shanahan can help Skule by calling quick passes, or rolling Garoppolo out of the pocket to the right, far away from Skule. But on third downs, Skule will have to block someone while Garoppolo stands in the pocket.

For the 49ers to beat the Steelers, Skule can’t be a liability.

5. Depending on Garoppolo to lead the 49ers to victory: Garoppolo attempted 27 passes Week 1. Week 2, he attempted only 25. The 49ers have worked around him and limited his exposure to the defense, and he still has thrown two interceptions.

If the Steelers take away the 49ers’ run game and force Garoppolo to drop back 40 or 50 times, he could throw lots more picks and the 49ers could lose.

“They are pretenders,” said former Steelers safety and current analyst Ryan Clark on ESPN this week, referring to the 49ers. “Not the real deal. I still don’t believe in Garoppolo. I know a lot of people have said he has gotten over some his struggles from the preseason and he’s fully back from the injury. Kyle Shanahan did a great job of scheming people open against the Cincinnati Bengals, but (Garoppolo) was not sharp against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 49ers won that game because Jameis Winston actually was worse. Garoppolo is going to have to be better.”

Clark played for the Steelers from 2006 to 2013, still knows several players and coaches on that team and his comments may reflect the Steelers’ attitude about the 49ers.

Garoppolo certainly is capable of playing better — we’ve seen him lead the 49ers to victory in the past. On Sunday, he’ll need to play one of the best games of his career, which will be tough to do without Staley protecting his blind side.

Garoppolo will get hit hard, throw a couple picks and the 49ers will lose 20-16. No shame in that. The Steelers are the standard for toughness and consistency in the NFL. They’ve been good for 45 years. The 49ers can lose this statement game and still make the playoffs.

But if Garoppolo and the 49ers find a way to win this game, everyone will know that they’re contenders. The real deal.

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