Statement game: Beating Steelers would be huge for 49ers
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.
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.