Five Storylines Heading Into Steelers-49ers

Can the new look Steelers find a win?

Matt Koll
September 20, 2019 - 3:11 pm

© Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - Well, can't say I saw this coming. Not only the 0-2 start, but the season -ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger, the passing of the torch to Mason Rudolph for the 2019 season, and the trading of a first round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Here's what happening and what to look out for in Week 3. 

5. Where'd James Conner Go? 

After rushing for almost 1,000 yards last year in just 12 start stepping up in Le'Veon Bell's absence, James Conner has been nowhere to be found in 2019. Where did that James Conner go? Where did the Conner that averaged over 120 yards from scrimmage go? 

It hasn't been pretty for Conner so far, 21 carries for 54 yards. Of course, when talking about running back a lot of what they do is dependent on the offensive line and that hasn't exactly been great to this point, either. The run game featuring Conner was effective in 2018 and I'm curious to see how they continue to try to get him going this year. I think lack of preseason reps and overall health has hindered him to this point. I think the Steelers still have the utmost confidence in him, I just wonder how long the leash is before they starting turning to Jaylen Samuels and/or rookie Benny Snell more frequently. I think we'll start to see some signs of hope from Conner, but the 49ers rank 8th in rushing defense through the first two weeks.  

4. Are These 2-0 49ers For Real? 

72 points scored in 2 games is certainly eye-catching. Then you look that they did it against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati...not exactly defensive juggernauts. They do have an interesting mix of weapons within the offense and it's changed a little even from the offseason. Their starting running back Jerick McKinnon went down again to begin this season and a combination of Matt Brieda, Raheem Mostert and even Jeff Wilson have stepped in and done a really nice job. 

Maybe all we know about Jimmy Garoppolo is that he was Tom Brady's backup in New England and was hurt all of last year.  San Jose Mercury News 49ers writer and 95.7 The Game insider Cam Inman told The Fan Morning Show this week that Jimmy G hasn't taken many shots down the field and there's always a few throws per game that are risky and either get intercepted or come close to it. I'm not sold on him completely in becoming a great starting quarterback in the league but I do think he'll only improve with an offensive genius like Kyle Shanahan at the helm. Overall, do I think they are as good as 31-17 and 41-17 against Tampa and Cincinnati, respectively? I don't think they'll keep up that pace. But this isn't a team to look past in any way. They could sneak their way into the playoffs if they stay healthy. I think they could be a 9-7, 10-6 team. I don't know if that's "real" or not but it certainly means I wouldn't be surprised if they took this one, their home opener. 

3. How Fitzpatrick Fits 

There was a lot of talk about this Minkah Fitzpatrick trade this week. The Steelers parted ways with their 2020 first pick to go get this guy, a 22 year old, second year safety who was disgruntled in Miami after realizing the Dolphins were already tanking the season. The trade makes more sense now that we know Sean Davis will be out for at least 8 weeks and is on the IR. I don't many worried about Fitzpatrick fitting in and finding a role for himself. I think he's a talented defensive back who can do many things to help this defense, possibly up to and including the tight end position that continues to haunt this defense. 

Personally, I think the trade makes sense. Yes, Ben is out. Yes, the playoffs are a long shot now with Rudolph in and an 0-2 start. But every year Ben is on the roster, hurt or not, is a year in which you are trying to stack your roster with enough talent as possible to maximize the windows of having your franchise QB. Many have clamored that the Steelers could end up a top 10 pick because the season could fall apart without Roethlisberger. I don't think that will happen and I'm OK with giving up a first round for a position of need, a position they don't draft well in, for a proven commodity with years left of contractual control. 

2. West Coast Woes 

Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger just have flat out, not been good on the west coast throughout their careers in Pittsburgh. There are plenty of stats and figures to support that. If one of the variables (Ben) is out of the equation though, what happens? Is it almost better for Roethlisberger to be out for this one? And why the heck can't they win out there? Is it the travel? Is the air different? Do they party too much the night before, what's the deal here? It's time for them to get over this mountain. Reverse the trend. Much like the game (or sometimes two) that the Steelers lose to an inferior opponent per season, this is just one of those trends under Mike Tomlin that drives you crazy. Does it strike again Sunday? 

1. Show Us What You Got, Mason 

The new era is here. At least for 2019. Let's embrace it. I think most Steelers fans have, as the period between mourning the loss of Ben Roethlisberger's season and looking ahead to this game and the rest of the year with Mason Rudolph has been much shorter than expected. 

I like his confidence. I like his calm demeanor on the field. I like that he plays with just the right amount of emotion, showing his passion for the game yet not taking himself out of it because he's flying off the handle. Everything he's said and done leads me to believe he won't be enveloped by the moment on Sunday or enveloped by this opportunity to start this year. I like the already established relationship he has with James Washington from their Oklahoma State days and I wonder the connection he showed with Vance McDonald is sustainable. 

What I don't know is what all of us don't does he do playing all four quarters? With a week to prepare as the starter? What happens when he meets a little adversity and maybe the gameplan isn't going as expected? What if he needs to lead the team down the field in two minutes or less...can he do that? 

That's why you tune in, folks. 

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