MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT
Steelers 20, 49ers 17
Oct. 14, 1984 at Candlestick Park
Terry Bradshaw had retired, Cliff Stoudt had fled to the USFL, Dan Marino had been passed over, and David Woodley had been yanked, so 1980 first-round draft pick Mark Malone made his first start of the 1984 season against the undefeated 49ers and led the Steelers to a touchdown on their first drive. The Steelers led 10-0 and then 10-7 entering the fourth quarter before a Keena Turner interception set up a go-ahead 49ers touchdown with 10:48 left to play. Malone drove the Steelers 83 yards in 15 plays for the tying touchdown — a 6-yard pass to John Stallworth — with 3:21 left. Joe Montana got the ball back but his pass to fullback Bill Ring was intercepted by linebacker Bryan Hinkle and returned 43 yards to the SF 3 to set up Gary Anderson's 21-yard field goal with 1:42 remaining. Montana move the 49ers in position to tie the game, but Ray Wersching missed a 37-yarder with seven seconds left. It was the champion 49ers only loss that season.
TALE OF THE TAPE
"The 49ers roll six or seven different defensive linemen through the game with a lot of third-down twists by a couple of outstanding guys on the inside. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead were college teammates at Oregon, both first-rounders drafted a year apart, are very similar. Buckner reminds me of Sean Jones, the old Raider — tall, slender but brings power from the ground up with a lot of good hand fighting. He uses the old Jumpy Geathers forklift move to get offensive linemen off balance. If you looked at Seattle's defensive line, there were some T-rexes. San Francisco's defensive line is a lot of raptors. They're not heavy but they run very well. I think you can double-team them and bounce them out of some of those 3-techniques and get after them." -- Steelers Radio analyst Craig Wolfley.
Can the Steelers run the ball and control the clock?
Mike Tomlin told the offense it needs to convert more third downs if they want to run more often. That's smart. He put the run-game onus on the players, and that's what sports is all about, not coordination from a press box. It tells me the run game will play a heavy part in the plan with Mason Rudolph making his first pro start. Rudolph likes play-action, loves RPOs and will no doubt spend a lot of time under center rather than in shotgun. All three running backs are healthy and hungry. I suspect James Conner is feeling heat from the success of the other two and will have a big game.
THREE QUESTIONS: With former coach Bill Cowher
Q: I watch this team without Ben Roethlisberger, and with Devin Bush running around looking confused like Troy Polamalu as a rookie, and I can't help but think of 2003. But even then you were only two years away from winning a Super Bowl.
BC: "Yeah, right?"
Q: So do you have a message about how turnarounds are possible?
BC: "Yeah, I think turnarounds are absolutely possible. I think Mike knows that and he's going to embrace this opportunity. I mean you do have a young team, and I really do like going out and getting Minkah Fitzpatrick. I think it was a very good acquisition because certainly when you look at that defense now there's a little bit more burden on them to make sure that they become the strength of that football team. I think as you've seen in the past, the identity of the Steelers has always been around that offense. I think right now what they need to do is make it around that defense, and I think with Fitzpatrick it sends a message that, 'You know what? We're not giving up on the season. We still have an opportunity.' I know 1993 and 2002 we went to the playoffs after starting 0-2, so it can be done. When you look at the division and you look at the experience, I think there's still great leadership on that football team. You look at that offensive line with Pouncey and DeCastro, and you look at the defensive side with T.J. now becoming an integral part of that with Cam and Tuitt. I think you're going to see Devin Bush become better and more comfortable as he gets going right now. And with Haden, and I like Steven Nelson — that was a good pickup — I think they're going to get better as the season goes along. You see a lot of breakdowns right now but that's part of the growing pains that you have to go through when you have new players playing with each other. So I think they'll get better as the season goes along. It's a great opportunity right now for Mason and that offense. They need some people to step up and see what their roles can be and then you start to play to those strengths."
Q: You have to love the message the trade sent to the team, don't you?
BC: "Absolutely. I think there are a lot of positives to be taken from it, I'm sure."
What to look for from the Steelers at 4:25 today at Levi's Stadium:
The run game will be essential today against a 49ers defense with the aforementioned first-round picks from Oregon joined by elite talents Dee Ford and Nick Bosa on the edges. The 49ers also have a pair of coverage linebackers in Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander, so Conner, Jaylen Samuels and even Benny Snell will be very important this evening. Vance McDonald is coming home and should lead a receiving unit that's been pared down to JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson as the top three. The whittling process takes time, but losses tend to accelerate it.
It was an intriguing puzzle we watched at training camp as the Steelers pieced together sub-packages with seemingly every DB having a role in one alignment or another. But the acquisition of Fitzpatrick rendered much of that moot because he can do so many things that other pieces aren't as necessary. It might not happen this week, but look for the use of sub-packages to decrease as Fitzpatrick and Bush gain experience and knowledge. It's what elite players bring, the ability to match whatever the offense is doing without the coach having to change players.
Hey, I've led readers (however few may be left) to an 0-2 start, but I'm sticking with the Steelers. The 49ers have been dominant in a 2-0 start and make their home opener this afternoon. But I believe the Steelers will be highly, highly motivated and will scratch and claw with what I still believe is a talented roster. ... Steelers, 23-22.
BY THE NUMBERS
1: Win by the Steelers during the Tomlin era in six West Coast trips. They beat the Chargers, 24-20, in 2015.
2: Games by which done-for-the-season Roethlisberger trails Mike Webster for most games played for the Steelers.
13: Days by which 22-year-old Smith-Schuster beat out Randy Moss for being the youngest NFL receiver to have compiled 2,500 receiving yards.
18: Years ago this weekend, New England franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe was knocked out by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Bledsoe was replaced in the second half by a good-looking, second-year quarterback named Tom Brady. He couldn't rally the Patriots that day, but Brady replaced Bledsoe for good that day.
26: Percent of Steelers playcalls that have been running plays. Last year the Steelers had a 33-67 run-pass ratio.
— Out for the Steelers are FB Roosevelt Nix, reserve OLB Anthony Chickillo and ILB Vince Williams. Look for more Ola Adeniyi as a reserve OLB and some Tyler Matakevich to rotate into the ILB mix with Bush and Mark Barron.
— Out for the 49ers are LT Joe Staley, RB Tevin Coleman, and WRs Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd. Staley's loss could be particularly difficult for the 49ers. He was injured late in the third quarter of last week's blowout win. His backup, Shon Coleman, had broken his leg in training camp so the 49ers were forced to use Justin Skule, a rookie sixth-rounder out of Vanderbilt. The 49ers only attempted one short pass the rest of that game, so Skule has yet to be tested as a blind-side protector. Bud Dupree will be his primary matchup today.
— The 49ers' replacements at wide receiver — rookie Deebo Samuel and speedster Marquise Goodwin (4.27 Combine 40) — have hurt opponents with jet sweeps and short passes off pick routes, which have killed the Steelers the last two weeks. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler was asked why his defenders don't re-route receivers the way they did last season. "We’re not playing as much zone as we did before," said Butler. "There are times that we’re going to try and jam people, and we’re going to pick and choose when those times are. A lot of people try and go deep on you when you do that. What we’re trying to do is make sure that we don’t give up big plays."
— Butler's reaction to the acquisition of Fitzpatrick? "Hallelujah!" he said of his new free safety. "I’m glad we got him. We need him. Watching him practice, you all see the same thing I do, that dude can move."
— McDonald was drafted by the 49ers and then-coach Jim Harbaugh proclaimed him the next Mike Ditka, and even gave McDonald his old Bears coach's number, 89. But McDonald disappointed and was traded to the Steelers right before the 2017 season. In four seasons with the 49ers, McDonald's receiving line was 64-866-7. In two-plus seasons with the Steelers, it's 73-876-7 while showing some very Ditka-like moments with the ball. "This game will obviously be a little bit different this week because I spent four years of my life here. Yeah, I'll bring an edge, sure," said McDonald.
"''You guys complain about the run game, well stay on the damn field on third down.'" -- Ramon Foster on what Tomlin told Steelers offensive linemen who were complaining about the lopsided run-pass ratio.