The 49ers offense couldn’t get out of its own way.
San Francisco gave the ball to the Pittsburgh Steelers five times via turnover in Sunday’s home opener, a 24-20 San Francisco win, including three times inside the 25-yard line, taking scoring chances off the board. It felt just like the loss to the Arizona Cardinals last October, when the 49ers more than doubled up the opponent in yardage but were doomed by five giveaways.
But this is a different 49ers team. The defense Sunday bailed out the offense for the second time this season.
“There’s just this confidence that they’re going to go make a play,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said.
The key play was made with 5:36 in the game, when Arik Armstead ripped the ball from running back James Connor soon after the 49ers committed their most egregious mistake of the a day filled with them.
San Francisco was down 20-17, facing a third-and-goal from the 7-yard line. Receiver Richie James was put in motion to run a fake jet sweep. Only the snap came a touch too late and bounced off James, allowing Steelers defensive end T.J. Watt to get his second takeaway of the game.
Armstead’s forced fumble came three plays later, giving the 49ers another red zone opportunity to retake the lead (there were four lead changes total).
“That’s what winning football teams do,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “They make big plays in big moments.”
The result was a go-ahead touchdown to receiver Dante Pettis, which was only possible because Armstead forced a second turnover.
The 49ers scored two touchdowns Sunday off their two defensive takeaways, which were imperative to the win and improving to 3-0 for the first time since 1998.
The 49ers limited first-time starting quarterback Mason Rudolph to 174 passing yards and Pittsburgh to 239 yards total. Through three games, San Francisco’s new-look defense is allowing just 283 yards per game, down from 347 last season.
“We have a lot of talent on this defense,” defensive end Dee Ford said, who had a third-down sack late in the first half that took the Steelers out of field goal range. “With everything that was going on, ups and downs, we stayed together and it gave us the opportunity to do what we do best. Had we fallen apart early in that game, we wouldn’t have had that opportunity. So that’s the key to it.”
The offense made bad mistakes on its first five possessions in the first half. Yet the Steelers only came away with six points.
The 49ers defensive players in the locker room said they enjoyed being put in tough spots, particularly against an inexperienced quarterback like Rudolph. The Steelers converted just 3 of 12 third downs and rushed for just 79 yards.
“We have a bunch of guys,” defensive end Nick Bosa said, citing the team’s defensive veterans, “just really good leaders, who just get us super hyped up for those moments. Sometimes you can get down and pout about it, when your team has five turnovers.
“We knew we were dominating them so we were excited to go back out (on the field).”
It was the second time in three games the defense picked up the slack for the offense. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon returned interceptions for touchdowns in the 14-point victory in the season opener. Sunday, the defense stiffened, allowing just six points after the offense gave the ball away five times in the four-point win.
“To have two games like that where things don’t go perfect, says a lot about the character of the guys in there,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I think we have been better in how we’re playing, but it also says, our guys are mentally a lot stronger. They were pretty relentless through everything. They didn’t waiver at all.”
Added Sherman: “We took it as Murphy’s Law, and you want to slap Murphy in the face, and we did that today. We took Murphy’s Law — everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. You take it with a smile, and you go out there and persevere, and that’s what we did today as a defense.”
The Steelers had a chance to win the game with a touchdown drive in the final moments, which would have been fitting given the 49ers had 11 losses by eight points or less over the past two seasons.
But Bosa and DeForest Buckner combined for a sack on third down, just before a fourth-down incompletion to put the game on ice.
“I said to Jimmy (Garoppolo) on the last drive, this is why we got Dee Ford and Nick Bosa,” Juszczyk said. “This is the reason right here. Those guys went out there and made plays. You breathe a little bit easier on the sideline when you know those guys are out there.”
Witherspoon’s injury worth watching
Sunday marked the second straight game the 49ers might have lost a valuable starter due to injury. Last week it was left tackle Joe Staley, Sunday it was cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who left the locker room in a walking boot. He was carted off the field in the second half with an apparent foot injury.
Shanahan said he didn’t know the severity of the injury and Witherspoon will undergo further testing Monday.
Witherspoon’s initial replacement was Jason Verrett, who was getting his first playing time since sustaining a knee injury in Week 1 of 2017. He missed all of last season with a torn Achilles.
Things didn’t go well for Verrett. He was charged with a 32-yard pass interference penalty before getting beaten by rookie Diontae Johnson for a 39-yard score to give Pittsburgh the 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. The 49ers subbed Emmanuel Moseley for Verrett the next series.