49ers

49ers' talented group of pass rushers impresses Steelers' Mike Tomlin

49ers' talented group of pass rushers impresses Steelers' Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has led his team to the playoffs in seven of his previous 12 seasons.

If he can somehow make it eight in 13 years, it likely will rank as his finest coaching achievement -- even for a man who has a Super Bowl ring.

“I do enjoy the challenges and the adversity that the game presents,” Tomlin said Wednesday on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. “So from that standpoint, it does create a sense of urgency that’s a good fuel.”

The Steelers are 0-2, and they lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to season-ending elbow surgery. Second-year pro Mason Rudolph takes over as the Steelers’ starting quarterback, and he will make his first NFL start on Sunday against the 2-0 49ers at Levi’s Stadium.

“From mental preparation standpoint, I think one of the reasons we have a great deal of comfort and he has a great deal of comfort is because he’s always approached each day as if he’s the starter and has brought that level of urgency to his preparation,” Tomlin said of Rudolph. “That’s just mental preparation, the process that he goes through on Monday and Tuesday in terms of laying the foundation.”

Rudolph and the Steelers have plenty to study this week as they prepare to face an invigorated 49ers defense that appears vastly improved from the unit that last season generated only seven takeaways, including two interceptions, in 16 games. Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon returned interceptions for touchdowns in the opening-week win over Tampa Bay.

“First of all, they’re creating a great deal of negativity on defense,” Tomlin said. “They’re getting turnovers and scoring points. Boy, that makes you a tough outfit to beat.”

The 49ers have already registered four interceptions. Robert Saleh's defense also has forced four fumbles, recovering one of them. In addition, the 49ers have rotated nine defensive linemen and generated seven quarterback sacks through two games.

“I just like they way they use a large number of people,” Tomlin said. “They got a great rotation and everybody’s productive and fresh and playing hard. That’s one of the key attributes of what they do systematically defensive. It’s no different than when we played Seattle a week ago, and they run a bunch of defensive linemen at you.

“The 4-3 teams that generate rush with those guys primarily have to play a lot of people, and they need all those guys to be productive in order to play great, and obviously they’re playing great at this point.”

[RELATED: Why didn't the Steelers look into signing Colin Kaepernick?]

Six different 49ers defensive linemen have combined for the seven sacks, led by Arik Armstead with two in two games. Nick Bosa has one sack and has produced 10 quarterback pressures, which ranks tops among all NFL rookies, according to Pro Football Focus.

“He’s been in some good situations,” Tomlin said. “They’ve been in some good situations being up in their football games and his talents are able to show. I got a lot of respect for him as a rusher, and I have a lot of respect for them as rushers. Not only the talented individuals within the group, but how they work collectively together, Dee Ford, and everyone else.”

How Jerick McKinnon impacts 49ers' negotiations with Raheem Mostert

How Jerick McKinnon impacts 49ers' negotiations with Raheem Mostert

49ers running back Raheem Mostert wants a raise or to be traded. The problem for him is, he doesn't really have any leverage. Regardless of what he deserves, that's just the reality of the situation.

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan favors a running back-by-committee approach. He will be able to employ that, regardless of whether or not Mostert wants to be a part of it. The 49ers have ample depth at the position, even after trading Matt Breida earlier in the offseason.

Tevin Coleman isn't going anywhere. Cutting him would result in a $2 million dead cap hit, and San Francisco can't afford to waste cap space at the moment.

Jeff Wilson scored five touchdowns on 30 total touches last season. He seemed to make a play whenever given an opportunity, and the coaching staff has plenty of faith in him.

The 49ers also signed undrafted free agents JaMycal Hasty and Salvon Ahmed, who originally might have been ticketed for the practice squad, but there's a reason why San Francisco pursued them. Shanahan has a long track record of creating productive rushers out of thin air, and Mostert's performance last season only backs that up.

But there's one major wild card in San Francisco's backfield: Jerick McKinnon.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Having signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the 49ers on the opening day of free agency in 2018, McKinnon was hand-picked by Shanahan to transform San Francisco's offense. Though never a bell cow, he offered the speed and matchup versatility that Shanahan covets. McKinnon rushed for 570 yards and hauled in 51 receptions for another 421 yards in his final season before joining the 49ers, and in Shanahan's system, the possibilities were endless.

And then, all dreams were dashed.

McKinnon tore his ACL one week before the start of the 2018 season, and then sat out the entirety of the 2019 campaign after requiring additional surgery. After not stepping foot on the field in a single game over his first two seasons with the franchise, McKinnon agreed to a pay reduction for the 2020 season that will see him make $910,000 in base salary, a sign of his commitment to the team. He was scheduled to make $6.8 million in 2020 prior to the restructuring.

Given his injury history, the 49ers would be wise to be cautious with their dependence on him. That said, he has had nearly a full year to recover from the most recent surgery, and last month his trainer said McKinnon is "in the best shape of his life."

He had been working with Rischad "Footwork King" Whitfield, and on Wednesday, McKinnon posted more workout videos to his Instagram Story.

The 49ers are optimistic they'll finally be able to unleash McKinnon this coming season, with Mostert recently going so far as to predict that McKinnon will "surprise people." If he's healthy, there's no doubt Shanahan will be itching to involve him in the offense, creating yet another potential matchup nightmare for the opposing defense. Plenty can happen between now and then, but San Francisco has to be feeling good about the progress "Jet" has put on tape.

[RELATED: How Mostert's 49ers trade demand shows price of success]

If the 49ers go into the season feeling like they can count on McKinnon, Mostert inevitably will get fewer touches. There are only so many to go around, especially with receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd liable to take a few of their own. Mostert rightfully feels like he deserves a significant raise, but that's under the assumption he is going to be the lead back in Shanahan's system.

That might still be the case, regardless of McKinnon's status. But the 49ers haven't forgotten about McKinnon, and until they do, the odds are against Mostert getting what he wants.

What Raheem Mostert's agent says client wants in 49ers trade demand

What Raheem Mostert's agent says client wants in 49ers trade demand

49ers running back Raheem Mostert's trade demand carries another motive, according to his agent.

Within an hour of announcing Mostert's trade demand Wednesday, Brett Tessler told NFL Media's Ian Rapoport that Mostert "simply" wants his salary "in line" with teammate Tevin Coleman's.

Coleman's $4.55 million base salary is nearly $2 million more than Mostert's $2.575 million, according to Over the Cap. Mostert's salary is not guaranteed, whereas $2 million of Coleman's became guaranteed on April 1. Coleman can earn nearly $4.9 million after workout and roster bonuses, and Mostert can make up to $2.825 million if he hits all his roster bonuses.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Mostert (151) and Coleman (158) had nearly the same number of total touches during the regular season, with each player rushing an identical 137 times. But Mostert led the team in regular-season rushing yards (772) and rushing touchdowns (eight), becoming the 49ers' top back down the stretch and having over twice as many carries (117) and touches (126) as Coleman (55; 58) from Week 13 onward.

Prior to that stretch, Mostert had 113 rushing attempts and 127 touches in the preceding 31 games. Coleman, meanwhile, signed with the 49ers as a free agent in 2019 after averaging 165.5 touches per season in four years with the Atlanta Falcons.

[RELATED: How Mostert's 49ers trade demand shows price of success]

Whether the 49ers meet either of Mostert's demands remains to be seen.

He still has two years left on his contract (including 2020), and the 49ers currently have the NFL's eighth-highest salary-cap number on running backs. San Francisco has just over $12 million in salary-cap space, but that number conceivably could diminish if star tight end George Kittle's contract extension includes a reworked 2020 cap number.

Kittle's set to count just over $2.2 million against the cap this season. Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, who has the NFL's highest cap number at the position, counts just shy of $12.5 million against the cap.