The defensive rule of thumb when facing Ben Roethlisberger: If you get to the big Steelers quarterback, you have to bring him down.
An even more important rule: You have to get to Roethlisberger.
The 49ers had no sacks and no quarterback hits during their Sunday encounter with the Steelers. And unlike Week 1 opponent Teddy Bridgewater, Roethlisberger made them pay for their blitzing style with 369 yards and three touchdowns in a 43-18 rout.
Roethlisberger connected deep with ex-Raiders wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey, wide receiver Markus Wheaton and especially favorite target Antonio Brown, who caught nine of the 11 passes thrown in his direction for 195 yards and a touchdown.
Brown, who led the NFL last year in catches and receiving yards, was matched early against cornerback Kenneth Acker, who was making just his second start. But Brown did damage no matter who was covering him or what type of defense the 49ers happened to be playing.
“They made big plays that we didn’t make,” said Jim Tomsula, whose first loss as the 49ers’ coach came in his hometown. “ ... It’s no secret. They do a wonderful job of creating. That’s what happened. You can’t give up the big plays.”
The 49ers held the ball longer than the Steelers, 36:59 to 23:01, and had 27 first downs to Pittsburgh’s 21. The Steelers, however, averaged an astounding 13.7 yards per pass play. The 49ers averaged 5.8 yards in that category and again had trouble scoring in the red zone.
After the Steelers went up 8-0 early, the 49ers had a chance for their own touchdown when they gained a first down at the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. But the next three plays went backward, and the 49ers settled for Phil Dawson’s 47-yard field goal. They didn’t find the end zone until the fourth quarter, on a 14-yard pass from Colin Kaepernick to Anquan Boldin, and by that time the outcome had been decided.
Tomsula and the team’s veterans said they were interested in how the young squad would react to the blowout loss.
“That’s the lesson – knowing that you have to come to play every single week and that the success and celebration (are) over right after the game,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “You focus on your next opponent. I think we’re going to do that this week.”
Strong safety Antoine Bethea said: “We had one great win and one horrible loss, but the good thing about it is that we’ve got a game next week. It’s only our second game. We have 14 games left. No need to panic, but we do need to go in there and correct the things that we did wrong and come out and play better next week.”
The last time the teams met, in 2011, Roethlisberger had an ankle injury that limited his mobility. The 49ers sacked him three times, hit him another eight times and had three interceptions in a 20-3 win in San Francisco. Former 49er Aldon Smith was credited with 2 1/2 sacks in that game.
The Steelers quarterback had no trouble moving around Sunday and most of the time didn’t need to escape the pocket. He also wasn’t fooled by 49ers defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s complex defense that throws several formations and personnel packages at the opposing passer.
That defense bedeviled Bridgewater, who was making his 13th start. It had no effect on Roethlisberger, who made his 160th start.
“They were giving us a lot of different looks, bringing their safeties down, and we thought, ‘Let’s not over-think ourselves,’ ” Roethlisberger said. “ ‘Let’s just call a play and live with it. Call a safe play and just live with it. Make them adjust to us.’ ”
Early in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger moved to his right to avoid the 49ers’ pass rush, looked up and saw that Wheaton was being covered by an inside linebacker, Michael Wilhoite. Roethlisberger heaved the ball downfield for a 48-yard completion that left Wilhoite wondering where his defensive help was. The completion to the San Francisco 8-yard line set up one of running back DeAngelo Williams’ three touchdowns.
“The best thing about Ben Roethlisberger is that he can create and he can make something out of nothing,” Wilhoite said. “I think probably two or three of those big plays were him creating and making things happen.”