The Pittsburgh Steelers Are in Big Trouble

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 23, 2019

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 22: Mason Rudolph #2 of the Pittsburgh Steelers fights off the tackle of Arik Armstead #91 of the San Francisco 49ers during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game at Levi's Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers won the game 24-20. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Glance only at the final score and you might figure the Pittsburgh Steelers made progress in a Week 3 road loss to the San Francisco 49ers. After all, Pittsburgh led for much of the afternoon and fell just short, losing 24-20 in quarterback Mason Rudolph's first career start. 

But the truth is Sunday's result didn't feel particularly sustainable, which is never a good sign when we're talking about a loss to an opponent that won just four games last season. 

Sure, the 49ers are now 3-0. But careless Jameis Winston handed them a victory in Week 1, and the Cincinnati Bengals forgot how to play football when they hosted San Francisco in Week 2. The 49ers still had a lot to prove Sunday against Pittsburgh, but instead they let the Steelers hang around by committing five turnovers and scoring just 24 points on six red-zone possessions. 

That San Francisco won despite losing the turnover battle by a margin of 5-2 is a tremendous indictment on this totally unfamiliar Steelers team. Those who figure they'll compete without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and departed stars Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell should not be emboldened by the fact this game was close.

It was only close because San Francisco let it be close. 

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

This marked just the fourth time since the start of last season that a team has lost despite winning the turnover battle by a margin of three or more. 

Incredibly, despite all of those takeaways, the Steelers controlled the ball for just 23:43, compared to 36:17 for San Francisco. That's because the 49ers had 26 first downs to Pittsburgh's 11, they converted six third downs to Pittsburgh's three, and they averaged 6.0 yards per play to Pittsburgh's 4.7. 

Forcing turnovers is always a good thing, but it's not as though that was all on Pittsburgh, either.

  • A first-quarter Jimmy Garoppolo interception hit 49ers running back Matt Breida in the hands and bounced right to T.J. Watt. (Pittsburgh went three-and-out on the ensuing possession and settled for an unearned field goal.) 
  • Newcomer Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted a pass on the next San Francisco drive, but that also came off a deflection. (Pittsburgh managed to pick up a single first down on the ensuing drive, again coming away with a field goal on a short field.) 
  • Later, San Francisco fumbled on a missed exchange on 2nd-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 7-yard line. That had nothing to do with Pittsburgh's defense prowess. 
  • Ditto for San Francisco's fourth-quarter fumble at the same yard line, when a poorly timed snap hit motioning wide receiver Richie James Jr. in the freakin' facemask. 

If not for those plays—all of which went Pittsburgh's way and involved plenty of luck—this would have been a blowout. 

After completing just eight of 15 passes for a comical 40 yards in the first two quarters and then throwing a disgusting interception on the first possession of the third quarter, Rudolph did at least make some progress down the stretch. But a couple big completions didn't make up for the fact he had a 27.6 passer rating midway through the third quarter.

And while both of those deep touchdown passes were impressive, it should be noted that Diontae Johnson was hilariously wide-open on his 39-yard scoring catch, while JuJu Smith-Schuster gained 65 of his 76 yards with his legs after a short catch over the middle. 

Those aren't developments you can rely on from week to week. 

Rudolph might get better. It would be unfair to condemn him after just one start, and he has enjoyed some nice moments the last two weeks. Still, it's easy to envision this Steelers team at 0-3 with or without Big Ben. 

Running back James Conner continues to struggle mightily, raising concerns he's a one-hit wonder. Smith-Schuster failed to make big plays in the first two weeks of the year and was held to just two catches for five yards on six targets excluding that 76-yarder in the third quarter Sunday. The offense lacks identity, the aging offensive line is becoming a liability, and the coaches continue to raise eyebrows when it comes to play-calling and game management. 

And while Fitzpatrick was impressive in his debut, Watt is a star and Devin Bush looks like the real deal, a defense that couldn't get off the field Sunday has surrendered 28.3 points per game. 

Steelers fans ought to be discouraged. The team doubled down on Rudolph and this watered-down roster the moment it traded a first-round pick for Fitzpatrick in the wake of news that Roethlisberger would miss the remainder of the season due to an elbow injury.

Now, they're one of just five 0-3 teams, so that draft pick could be primo. But it belongs to the Miami Dolphins, which means that in 2020, the Steelers will likely be forced to roll with Rudolph or a 38-year-old, post-surgery Roethlisberger. 

Throw in that Spotrac currently projects them to enter the 2020 offseason with just $3.8 million in salary-cap space, and it's easy to mistake this franchise for a sinking ship. 

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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