The San Francisco 49ers host the winless Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3, and the Niners will look to win these three crucial matchups to start 2019 with a 3-0 record.


Week 3 was supposed to be the game in which the San Francisco 49ers would be seriously tested by the Pittsburgh Steelers, perhaps endangering what ended up being an excellent 2-0 start for head coach Kyle Shanahan and Co.

Instead, the winless Steelers find themselves fielding a relatively untested quarterback, Mason Rudolph, who is making his first NFL start after Pittsburgh lost Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. On top of that, the Steelers have found themselves towards the bottom in nearly every offensive and defensive category, losing ugly to the New England Patriots in Week 1 before falling short against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2.

But to say this is a walk-in victory in the making for San Francisco would be foolish. Pittsburgh still has more than enough bona fide weapons on both sides of the ball, meaning more crucial matchups are in store for the red and gold this Sunday.

Here are five San Francisco will look to win in Week 3.

49ers Pass Rush vs. Steelers Offensive Line


The Niners have managed one of the best four-man pass rushes in the NFL over the first two weeks. And this is a primary reason why San Francisco's opponents have managed just 17 points in each of its first two contests.

But the 49ers haven't exactly faced top-tier offensive line competition. Pro Football Focus ranked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cincinnati Bengals offensive lines 24th and 31st, respectively, just ahead of Week 1.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, was ranked third.

Rudolph has poise under pressure, yet many of his passes are predicated off timing. A pass rush helps throw off that timing, but getting to Rudolph may not be easy for San Francisco's pass-rushers.

Good thing the Niners are hoping edge rushers Dee Ford (quad) and Nick Bosa (ankle) will be available for this contest. Both will need to have an impact.

Justin Skule vs. Bud Dupree


The Steelers also have a solid pass rush, and edge rushers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt are players the Niners have to worry about over four quarters this Sunday.

While Watt primarily lines up on the strong side of the formation, it's Dupree against rookie offensive tackle Justin Skule, which should be the primary concern. Skule, of course, is slated to start after the 49ers lost veteran left tackle Joe Staley to a broken leg, which will keep him out of the lineup for at least six weeks. Skule, San Francisco's sixth-round NFL Draft pick out of Vanderbilt, isn't the most polished pass protector. But for whatever the reasons, he managed to hold his own against some upper-echelon SEC pass-rushers in 2018.

Skule, after he came in for Staley in Week 2, was credited with not allowing any pressures or quarterback hits during his limited on-field time against the Bengals.

Dupree, meanwhile, already has a sack and two quarterback hits on the year.

George Kittle vs. Mark Barron, Terrell Edmunds


Tight end George Kittle hasn't gotten off to the hottest of starts, stat-wise, this season. Through two games, the 2018 Pro Bowler has just 11 catches for 108 yards and zero touchdowns.

Yet the Niners offense was relatively stagnant in Week 1, while Kittle's prowess helped open up other offensive weapons in Week 2 at Cincinnati.

This week, however, Kittle could be in line for a big game.

The Steelers' primary coverage responsibilities on Kittle will be linebacker Mark Barron and safety Terrell Edmunds. Pittsburgh has had issues defending passes down the middle of the field, particularly the seam. Edmunds has allowed six catches on eight targets this season, according to Pro Football Focus, while Barron is allowing an 8-of-9 mark through two weeks.

Expect Shanahan to hint Kittle a prime target for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

K'Waun Williams vs. JuJu Smith-Schuster


With wide receiver Antonio Brown gone, the Steelers' No. 1 wide receiver threat is now JuJu Smith-Schuster, who already has 11 catches for 162 yards on the season despite all of Pittsburgh's offensive struggles early this season.

The Steelers love to put Smith-Schuster in the slot, too, making his matchup against nickel cornerback K'Waun Williams one to watch this Sunday.

Williams hasn't exactly had the best of starts to a season, giving up six receptions on eight targets, per Pro Football Focus. Last week, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton recorded a 135.7 passer rating when targeting Williams.

Smith-Schuster is a player the Niners may want to consider bottling up, rather than eliminating from the Steelers game plan altogether. And to do so, it might begin with negating the efforts of another Pittsburgh offensive standout, running back James Conner.

49ers Run Defense vs. James Conner


One of Rudolph's better traits is executing well-timed passes out of play action. His efforts against Seattle in Week 2 seemed to justify this, as Pro Football Focus gave the second-year quarterback a 132.7 passer rating on seven play action passes, compared to 64.2 on 13 dropbacks without it.

To stop play action from being effective, defenses need to stop the run.

Conner showed why the Steelers were willing to move on from their former running back, Le'Veon Bell, last season. But Conner is off to a sluggish and banged-up start in 2019, averaging just 2.6 rush yards per carry on 21 attempts. While he's also a versatile pass-catching threat, keeping Conner from doing damage on the ground will be a primary focal point for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and Co.

Good thing the 49ers are allowing an average of just 3.2 rush yards per carry on the season, which is good for seventh best in the league over two weeks.

The 49ers and Steelers kick off on Sunday, Sept. 22 at 4:25 p.m. ET from Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.
  • Peter Panacy
  • Written by:
    Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game and the Niners' flagship station, KNBR 680. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to his Twitter account.