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.”
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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.”