photo from sfgate.com: Dante Pettis #18 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Levi’s Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Santa Clara, California
By Joe Lami
SANTA CLARA — For the first time since 1998, the San Francisco 49ers have started a season 3-0. In a wild home opener Sunday, the Niners outlasted the Big Ben-less Steelers in a 24-20 win.
Despite turning the ball over five times, including three times in the red zone, the Niners were able to hold off Pittsburgh thanks to a last-minute touchdown throw from Jimmy Garoppolo to Dante Pettis.
It would be Garoppolo’s only TD pass of the game, but it came at the perfect time to overcome the sloppy first half and secure the victory. Garoppolo finished the game 22 of 32 for 277 yards, the touchdown, and two interceptions.
Garoppolo threw picks to TJ Watt and newly acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick in 49ers territory in the first half. The Steelers starting positions were the 33 and 24-yard lines, but San Francisco’s defense showed the bend, don’t break style we’ve seen through the first two weeks to force field goals, holding Pittsburgh to just six points.
Despite going into intermission with a -4 turnover differential, the Niners only trailed 6-3 at halftime, giving the offense new life and confidence.
The Niners came out to score the game’s first touchdown on their opening drive on the second half. Jeff Wilson Jr. ran in his first of two scores from one-yard out, bringing his season total to four since coming off the practice squad.
The Steelers offense was held to 239 total yards, with 76 of them coming on one play in the third quarter. Mason Rudolph, making his first career start, connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster for the Steeler’s first TD of the day. Smith-Schuster beat Ahkello Witherspoon over the top and on a crossing route and carried it the rest of the way to make it 13-10 at the time.
The Niners answered right back on their next drive, going 75 yards in ten plays setting up Wilson Jr.’s second rushing score of the game to re-take the lead 17-10.
The Steelers didn’t go down quietly. After Witherspoon went down with a foot injury in the fourth quarter, Rudolph attacked his replacement Jason Verrett on consecutive plays. Verrett first took a pass interference penalty that cost the Niners 32 yards and then was beat on a 39-yard pass to Diontae Johnson for the rookie’s first career touchdown.
Rudolph played decent in his first start, passing 14 of 27 for 174 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception from K’Waun Williams. The Niners front seven did a great job slowing down the Steelers’ run, holding James Conner to just 43 yards on 13 carries.
The Steelers held the 20-17 late into the fourth quarter when the 49ers were driving. With the ball at the PIT 11-yard line, San Francisco’s turnover bug hit again, and a wonky snap went off the motion man for the Niner’s fifth turnover.
But once again, the defense didn’t let that bother them, buckling down for a huge forced turnover. Just a minute later, Arik Armstead forced James Conner fumble that was recovered by DeForest Buckner. The turnover allowed the 49ers to set up at the Steelers’ 24-yard line, setting up the game-winning score.
San Francisco’s defense has been the revelation in this young season. The newly acquired defensive line is doing precisely what Robert Saleh’s scheme is meant to do. Creating havoc and causing turnovers, the Niners have already matched 2018’s turnover total of seven in just the first three games.
Justin Skule played excellent, protecting Garoppolo’s blind side in his rookie debut. The Vandy sixth-round product did take three bad penalties late in the third that luckily didn’t cost San Francisco. “Those were costly penalties at pretty bad times. I had a couple of good things, but I am going to learn from it all from the tape and move on,” Skule said.
Skule and company have a couple of weeks before their next action. Heading into the early week four bye, the Niners return to action October 7th on Monday night at home against the Browns.
When asked about heading into a bye with a 3-0 record, everyone had the same generic answer. They aren’t thrilled having a bye week this early and with the potential of having it kill momentum but see the value in getting healthy and more bodies back before the second quarter of the season.