49ers takeaways: What we learned in 24-20 Week 3 win over Steelers

49ers takeaways: What we learned in 24-20 Week 3 win over Steelers


SANTA CLARA -- Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo gave 49ers wide receiver Dante Pettis a chance at the biggest-possible moment, and Pettis came through.

Garoppolo squeezed a pass into Pettis, who made the grab between two Pittsburgh Steelers defenders for a 5-yard touchdown that provided the winning points for the 49ers with 1:20 remaining.

The 49ers’ 24-20 victory at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday gave San Francisco its first 3-0 start since the 1998 season.

What a weird game it was ...

Here are three takeaways:    

Give it back -- again and again ...

The 49ers’ offense was about as bad as possible in the first half.

Garoppolo was on target with most of his throws, and he accounted for 170 passing yards. But the 49ers managed only three points because of four giveaways.

Garoppolo had two passes intercepted off the hands of intended receivers. And the 49ers gave it away twice on fumbles for a minus-four turnover margin after 30 minutes of play.

But, miraculously, the 49ers trailed just 6-3 at the half. The Steelers managed just two field goals off those turnovers. Pittsburgh cashed in an interception on a pass that Matt Breida bobbled and another interception on a catchable pass to Pettis that was deflected.

The 49ers also lost two prime scoring chances when Raheem Mostert fumbled inside in the Steelers’ 20-yard line and Garoppolo and center Weston Richburg botched a snap for a turnover at the Pittsburgh 7.

The 49ers had a fifth costly turnover in the middle of the fourth quarter when a direct snap hit wide receiver Richie James and the Steelers recovered on a play that originated from the Pittsburgh 7.

Garoppolo completed 23 of 32 passes for 277 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He led the team on the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.  

Defense prevents blowout loss

Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, making his first NFL start in place of Ben Roethlisberger, was given some favorable situations in the first half. But the 49ers’ defense kept the damage to a minimum.

The Steelers managed just five yards after their first takeaway and had to settle for Chris Boswell’s 46-yard field goal. Then, DeForest Buckner tripped up Rudolph for a 1-yard gain on a third-and-6 scramble, and Boswell kicked a 26-yarder.

The defense did a good job of stopping the Steelers on their early-down run plays, then keeping the ball in front of them to hold Pittsburgh to one or fewer first downs on six of their seven possessions in the first half.

The 49ers ended up taking the lead early in the third quarter, but the defense finally had a misstep when Ahkello Witherspoon allowed a crossing pattern against JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tarvarius Moore took a poor angle to allow a 76-yard touchdown to give Pittsburgh a 13-10 lead late in the third quarter.      

Verrett is needed -- does not respond

Veteran cornerback Jason Verrett was brought to the team to provide competition for Witherspoon at right cornerback. Verrett finally got his chance on Sunday, and he struggled.

Witherspoon won the starting job to open the season without much competition when Verrett sustained an ankle sprain on Aug. 7 that knocked him out of the preseason.

After being inactive for the first two games of the season, Verrett was in uniform on Sunday. And when Witherspoon left the game in the fourth quarter due to a foot injury, the 49ers turned to Verrett.

The Steelers turned to him, too.

Mason Rudolph, making his first NFL start, went after Verrett on the second play after Witherspoon left the game. Verrett was called for a 32-yard penalty for pass interference against James Washington.

On the next play, Verrett allowed Diontae Johnson to get behind him for an easy 39-yard touchdown pass from Rudolph. The play gave Pittsburgh a 20-17 lead with 10:22 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The next time the defense took the field, Emmanuel Moseley replaced Verrett at right cornerback.

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

SANTA CLARA -- Though Richard Sherman is a graduate of Stanford University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning on planet earth, his Thursday afternoon analysis of defensive strategy came straight outta Compton.

The subject was man-to-man coverage and Sherman’s avowed comfort at left cornerback.

The insinuation was that an opposing team could, theoretically, neutralize Sherman, surely the 49ers' best cornerback and perhaps tops in the NFL, by sending its best receiver to the opposite side of the field.

That the Green Bay Packers, for example, might frequently deploy No. 1 receiver Davante Adams to the right side of the San Francisco defense when the teams meet Sunday to decide the NFL representative in Super Bowl LIV.

It would not be illogical, in this instance, to have Sherman “shadow” Adams. Many defensive coordinators have made that request of their top cover corner.

Sherman proceeded to eviscerate that plan by using what folks in his hometown refer to as common sense.

“We have the No. 1 pass defense in this league,” the Compton native said while standing at the podium in the interview auditorium, “and we haven’t done it.”

The statistics absolutely support Sherman’s claim and his dismissiveness toward making a change that might convey a measure of desperation by the 49ers.

With Sherman almost exclusively on the left side, San Francisco in the regular season was the NFL’s top pass defense, allowing an average of 169.2 yards per game – the lowest average allowed by any team since 2009, when the Jets limited passers to an average of 153.7.

Moreover, the 49ers led the league in net yards per attempt at 4.8 and tied with the Patriots for fewest first downs allowed via pass, averaging 9.4 per game.

These numbers are among the factors that have made defensive coordinator Robert Saleh a candidate to become a head coach. They undoubtedly influence Sherman’s belief in Saleh, and as long as the numbers confirm no change is needed there will be request to follow Adams on Sunday or any other receiver on any other team.

“I love it how people are like, ‘Oh, my gawd, these guys need to do this,’ ” Sherman said in his usual audacious tone. “Well, I’m going to let you know something: You go to your job and tell your boss what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do and see how long you last.

“Saleh calls the defense. If Saleh comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you follow this guy everywhere he goes,' then that’s what I’m going to do. If he doesn’t, guess what? I’m going to do what he told me to do. That’s how coaching and player relationships work.

“And it just so happens, we have the No. 1 pass defense in the league,” he reiterated before sprinkling bits of sarcasm with his truth. “Whoa! Oh, my gawd! It’s crazy. Crazy that you’re not following anybody but, somehow, you’ve got the No. 1 pass defense in the league. It’s almost like our strategy works. It’s almost like you’re in idiot for doing it any other way. It’s almost like you’re dumb if you do it another way. It’s almost like people who have been saying, ‘Oh, do it this way’ for so long, but they don’t have the No. 1 defense.”

For Sherman, and for Saleh, it’s about doing what has worked. What succeeds. What wins. Is there a risk to staying true to their tendencies? Perhaps. If Adams avoids Sherman and torches Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon – and the latter has been vulnerable – and Green Bay prevails, there will be second-guessing. Because there always is.

Don’t expect it from Sherman, who posed a rhetorical scenario that essentially has a great left tackle shadowing a great pass rusher, no matter where he goes. This does not happen, nor can it ever be expected.

Until it does, Sherman has one criterion for any strategy involving his placement.

[RELATED: 49ers focused on Rodgers' patented move]

“Does it help us win the game? Is it going to help the defense? Is it going to help us limit their explosive (plays)? Then I’ll do it,” he said. “If it’s not. If it doesn’t make a difference, if it’s ... then that’s what I’m going to do.”

It’s not that he never has shadowed a receiver. He has done it against Atlanta’s Julio Jones, against Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. But as a rule, no.

So when the topic was floated this time, Sherman was armed and ready, and filled the room with facts.

How 49ers plan to stop Aaron Rodgers' potent 'wrist flick from hell'

How 49ers plan to stop Aaron Rodgers' potent 'wrist flick from hell'

SANTA CLARA -- Type “Aaron Rodgers” and “Hail Mary” into a search engine and the suggested terms drop down in an impressive list. Google offers to combine what you’ve typed with: “vs. Giants,” “vs. Cardinals,” and “vs. Lions.”

There probably are a few more in the Internet’s memory bank. The Green Bay Packers quarterback has a knack for doing the improbable. The 49ers will be cognizant of that Sunday in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.

When pressed for a memory watching Rodgers over the years, 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner brought up that Lions game from 2015. Rodgers zigged and zagged around prospective tacklers as time expired and effortlessly sent a mile high -- and equally far -- Hail Mary to complete an improbable comeback.

The 49ers have a term for that.

"It’s just funny, because we used to call it ‘the wrist flick from hell,’” Buckner said Thursday. “He would start avoiding rushers and everything and then you see that wrist flick and you think, ‘Oh, Lord.’ You know what I mean? You see him do that and you know someone’s going to come down with it. He’s just a special player.”

Last year’s defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina coined the term while the 49ers were watching film. It’s both accurate and apt, considering Rodgers can do things most signal-callers can’t.

The 49ers defensive line is aware of that and has to respect the possibility when rushing such a talented, athletic quarterback. Rodgers isn’t necessarily quick like Kyler Murray or as willing to break the pocket as Russell Wilson, but he can move and create space and avoid negative plays just the same.

That aspect of his game, Buckner said, must be respected a feared a little bit.

“He can extend plays. He’s good getting outside the pocket and knowing where the rush is at if he stays in the pocket,” Buckner said. “He can get out of the way and make guys miss. He can break free and make you pay the way Russell Wilson does. We just need to take it one play at a time and go with the same mindset the last time we played him and the same mindset we had last week. Our guys took it personal and told themselves that they weren’t going to be blocked.”

[RELATED: What Packers' Davante Adams learned from watching 49ers' Jerry Rice]

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins isn’t Rodgers-like, but he can play. An excellent 49ers defensive line featuring Buckner, Dee Ford, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead relentlessly hounded Cousins to the tune of six sacks and 23 total pressures in last Saturday's NFC Divisional Playoff.

The 49ers sacked Rodgers seven times and had 25 pressures in a Week 12 matchup with the Packers, and will have to be equally effective and create some scoreboard separation to avoid falling victim to the “wrist flick from hell.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday)

Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 6:30 p.m.