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What game tape says about Mason Rudolph, why 49ers’ defensive front is excited for Steelers

© David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports


If the San Francisco 49ers win on Sunday, they’ll be 3-0 for the first time since 1998 and a guaranteed 3-1 for the first time since 2012. In theory, it’s a favorable matchup; returning home after two weeks on the road to face a team in the Pittsburgh Steelers which, at 0-2, is on the verge of losing their season with a second-year (effectively rookie) quarterback at the helm in Mason Rudolph

But there are no gimmes in football, especially not against a Steelers team which has not finished below .500 since 2003 (under head coach Bill Cowher), and which has never finished below .500 with head coach Mike Tomlin (who has made the playoffs eight out of 12 times and won a Super Bowl).

It is early. For the moment, the 49ers, a team which has been abysmal for the last four years, is the clear favorite over the historically domineering Steelers, who, again, haven’t sunk anywhere near the depths that the 49ers have lived at since 2003.

So, no, don’t expect cockiness from a team that’s been terrible for far too long. Take it from George Kittle.

“I know that we’re going to get their best shot,” Kittle said Friday. “I think they’re going to get ours as well. Everyone says you’re 2-0, you get patted on the back and everything, you’re going to overlook the 0-2 Steelers. No. The last two years we’ve won 10 games. We’ve lost plenty. We’ve hurt. We’re hungry. We want to win. So I’m not really worried about anyone on this team feeling that way. I know that we’re going to come out and we’re definitely going to be swinging.”

‘He’s poised, he really is. And I’m not doing the coach speak’: 49ers say not to write off Rudolph

Those were the words of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who, as defensive coordinators tend to do, sang the praises of Rudolph, the Steelers’ new starting quarterback, who’s attempting to fill the very large shoes (both figuratively and physically) of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

As far as that size goes, Rudolph doesn’t have the exact berger beef body of Roethlisberger (listed at 6’5, 240 pounds), but he’s close (listed at 6’5, 235 pounds). The eye test says the weight differential there is more than five pounds, but they’re of a comparable size.

Saleh told reporters of Rudolph’s fourth preseason game tape, “… If you guys are bored and you guys want to watch it. He’s at the line, he’s very poised, IDing coverage, IDing his hot throws, taking his five-step drop. He’s got great vision to the backfield to move people, throw it exactly where he needs to put the ball. He’s quick with his reads, so the ball’s getting out of his hands. If his first read’s open, it’s out. He’s very capable of playing quarterback and it’s our job to try to make it harder on him.”

That tape that Saleh suggested did reveal the things he mentioned, but it also highlighted flaws that were evident in Rudolph’s Week 2 bullpen performance against the Seattle Seahawks (a 28-26 loss; the difference being a failed two-point conversion). On the whole, he did more good than bad, but his deep throws often leave something to be desired. There was one play in particular in which Rudolph had a pair of wide open receivers to his right (one running a seam, one on out route) and he missed both, taking too long on the play-action fake and going through his reads, eventually leading to a key incompletion late in the game with the Steelers trailing.

Here’s a brief look at what went right for Rudolph in that Week 4 preseason game and what didn’t (he generally gets the ball out quick; while he has the arm strength for deep throws, the ball doesn’t often have the speed on it to catch receivers in stride, and makes out routes challenging).

But that’s all the 49ers have on Rudolph. And from what they’ve seen, it’s not like the Steelers are falling off a cliff in quality from their QB1 to QB2. Free safety Jimmie Ward – who told KNBR that his surgically-repaired fractured finger “feels good” and pointed to the fact that he’s been in practice since last week (on a limited basis) – said Rudolph is likely to take advantage of the massive chance he has before him.

“We don’t have that much film on him,” Jimmie Ward told KNBR. “Some people probably could say that their offense may not be the same since Big Ben is out, but that’s not the case. This quarterback… has a great opportunity to go out there and show his organization and our organization and the rest of the other teams that’s watching that he can play quarterback at an NFL level… He has great composure, too, in the pocket. I like that about him as a quarterback, too. It seems like he’s in the NFL for a good reason.”

How the D-Line is relishing the chance to put ‘big boy pants on’ against big personnel sets

While the Steelers didn’t go to 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver) too often against the Seahawks, they did mix up their looks with big packages and would somewhat frequently bring in tackle Zack Banner as a third eligible tight end and extra blocker (six times by my count). Here’s what some of those formations looked like, with the last play resulting in a touchdown:

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said, however, that he was far from concerned about those formations.

“From a lineman standpoint? It doesn’t create a problem for us,” Saleh said. “You just know that it’s time to get your big boy pants on and get ready for a fun day, in my mind, of grinding in the trenches. Not to say that they can’t throw deep when they go 13 personnel, but to me when a team comes out in 13 personnel, they’re speaking to you. And I kind of like that language.”

Saleh wasn’t alone in his excitement at those potential packages. Defensive end Arik Armstead expressed a willingness to “embrace” that trench warfare when asked about the 13 personnel and heavy tight end packages.

“It’s a tough, physical game, teams that want to run the ball,” Armstead told KNBR. “You have to embrace it and stop the run early and those are the types of games that you love; the opportunity to play a physical game, mano y mano.”

Armstead, especially will love that sort of game. He’s been immense through two games, securing a sack on the first play of the 49ers’ 41-17 win over the Bengals in Week 2. Though, as Kittle said, Armstead doesn’t expect this Steelers team to roll over. Asked whether they’d be playing with some desperation, he answered in the affirmative.

“Oh for sure,” Armstead said. “They’re a great organization, have been good for years, they’re coached very well, they’ve got good players, they take pride in what they do, so I don’t see them coming in and throwing in the towel. They’re going to fight and it’s going to be a dogfight out there. Those are the types of games you love playing in.”

While there are natural gaps in the 49ers’ defensive line with their wide-nine alignment, the play of Armstead, Ronald Blair, DeForest Buckner (often double-teamed) and Nick Bosa coupled with the speed of Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander, have made it very difficult for teams to get their ground game going.

Alexander said the 49ers would be prepared for those bigger packages, acknowledging that they can throw the ball out of them (it’s how Rudolph secured his second touchdown of the day last week, shown above). If the 49ers can shut down the run like they did last week (allowing just 25 yards on the ground), expect the turnover contagion to continue. Alexander, of course, picked off Andy Dalton after Dalton was pressured out of the pocket and Alexander was waiting in coverage (shown below).

They’ll likely have that confidence even if Dee Ford can’t go, considering the extraordinarily good play of Ronald Blair (five tackles, three for a loss, one sack, one QB hit).

“Opportunities, especially with the front, we’re going to get a lot of takeaways,” Alexander said. “That’s our main thing, that’s what we’ll preach on now, just trying to get the ball out, being aware of where the ball’s at. We want the ball. That’s what we want. So that’s what we’re going to work on.”

 

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