An important question facing the 49ers in Sunday’s home opener, as they look to become 3-0 for the first time since 1998, is how the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is going to approach the game with a quarterback making his first career start.
“That’s been the big question for us,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Thursday.
Pittsburgh this week placed 16-year starter Ben Roethlisberger on injured reserve after he needed surgery to repair his right throwing elbow. That means second-year pro Mason Rudolph will be making his starting debut at Levi’s Stadium, hoping to keep the Steelers’ season afloat after starting 0-2 with losses to the Patriots and Seahawks.
“I know Rudolph will be ready,” Kyle Shanahan said. “He’ll step in — they’ve always had a good scheme. They know what they’re doing and they’ve got some other players out there, too.”
Which all means the 49ers are spending this week preparing for an unknown player, which could give the visiting team a hidden advantage to do things they haven’t yet put on film.
“Thankfully, with our scheme, we don’t make stuff up. We’ll take whatever they throw at us,” Saleh said. “I mean, they could very easily go big and run crunch (running plays) all day or they can go empty 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), I’m sure, on Sunday.”
Rudolph was a third-round draft pick in 2018 out of Oklahoma State. He completed 12 of 19 passes with two touchdowns and an interception after replacing Roethlisberger in the second half of last week’s loss to Seattle.
He was a polarizing draft prospect because while many believed he had the physical tools to play well in the NFL, others were unsure if it would translate after running the Air Raid offense in college against lackluster defenses in the Big 12. He threw for 13,618 yards in four seasons, including over 4,900 yards as a senior.
But Oklahoma State’s offense has a far different blueprint than what typically works in the NFL. Rudolph consistently threw short passes, like slants and bubble screens. And when the defense would try taking those away, Rudolph would try for explosive plays deep downfield. It’s unknown if Rudolph can excel in the intermediate passing game that’s vital in the pros.
So far, the 49ers sound impressed with what they’ve seen from Rudolph, whose only film has come in the preseason before making his regular season debut last week. Saleh took particular interest in Pittsburgh’s exhibition finale last month against the Carolina Panthers.
“He’s at the line, he’s very poised, (identifying) coverage, IDing his hot throws, taking his five-step drop,” Saleh said. “He’s got great vision to the backfield to move people, throw it exactly where he needs to put the ball. He’s quick with his reads, so the ball’s getting out of his hands. If his first read’s open, it’s out. He’s very capable of playing quarterback and it’s our job to try to make it harder on him.”
This year’s version of San Francisco’s defense seems up to the task after allowing the NFL’s second-worst passer rating last season (105.4). The 49ers through two games are fourth in that category (69.7) and are tied for second in the league with four interceptions after logging two in 2018, setting a new NFL record.
Of course, San Francisco is seeing its offseason investments in pass rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, and linebacker Kwon Alexander, already pay off. Saleh has also tinkered with the scheme, using more pre-snap disguises in coverage with the help of new secondary coach Joe Woods.
“You always want quarterbacks to try to play the position and you try to make it as hard as you can,” Saleh said. “Whether it’s pre-snap disguise, post-snap coverage, pressure, not pressure, you go into every game trying to make sure that your looks and your disguises all keep the quarterback guessing so he has to figure it out post-snap. That’s everything for us, but for a young man like him, I’m sure they’ll have a plan. It will be interesting to see what they do.”
Ford misses another practice
Ford missed a second-straight day of practice Thursday with knee tendinitis, leaving his status in question for Sunday’s game after leaving last week’s victory over the Bengals at halftime.
The team remains hopeful he could play against the Steelers, but it will likely come down to if he can return to the practice field Friday, which Bosa did last week while dealing with his sore right ankle. The 49ers could decide to give Ford a rest and allow him to get extra time to heal with the early bye week following Sunday’s game.
Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt was back at practice after missing Wednesday’s session with a toe injury. He seems likely to play Sunday. Bosa and defensive back Jimmie Ward (fractured finger) where listed as questionable. Ward’s injury came to the ring finger on his right hand. The wound from surgery is past the point where it could get infected from sweat.
Players that missed practice were running back Tevin Coleman (high left ankle sprain), receivers Trent Taylor (foot) and Jalen Hurd (back stiffness) and tackle Joe Staley (fractured fibula).
For the Steelers, running back James Connor (knee) and former 49ers tight end Vance McDonald (back) were full participants in Thursday’s practice. Connor sat out practice Wednesday while McDonald was limited.