FBG says: Neutral matchup. The Steelers have faced stretches without Ben Roethlisberger, who's no stranger to the injury report, before. But they're now staring down 14 games with *** Mason Rudolph at the helm. Rudolph looked plenty competent as a Week 2 fill-in, going 12 of 19 for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns, with an interception that resulted from yet another Donte Moncrief drop. Still, expectations must be tempered. Unlike the Seahawks, the 49ers will have the week to watch and prepare for Rudolph's traits. They'll focus on taking away his key targets, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Vance McDonald, and forcing him to win with the intuition and experience he doesn't yet have. On the plus side, he'll benefit from working behind an elite offensive line. Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro are the big names up front but left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is the team's premier pass-blocker. Roethlisberger has taken fewer and fewer sacks over the past few years, so protection shouldn't be an issue for Rudolph. The burning questions revolve around his ability to get the ball to those playmakers on-target. Rudolph did a great job of spreading it around Sunday, throwing to seven different receivers in the second half. Still, this attack will still go through Smith-Schuster and McDonald. The latter caught two short touchdowns late in the game, while the former made a great 45-yard play shortly after Rudolph stepped in. Overall, it's rarely wise to trust a first-time starting quarterback on the road. Rudolph may find himself in a better situation than most, but he still carries far more questions regarding this passing game than answers.
The 49ers have opened the season much stronger against the pass than they were in 2018. After harassing Jameis Winston into a flurry of interceptions in the opener, they forced Andy Dalton and the Bengals into an ineffective Week 2. It's too early to truly gauge their progress, but this isn't an ideal first start for the Steelers' Mason Rudolph. The 49ers boast a talented, versatile pass rush up front and shutdown potential in the secondary. At age 31, Richard Sherman remains an elite cover man on the 49ers' left side. He blanketed Mike Evans for much of Week 1, then Tyler Boyd from the Bengals' game plan last Sunday. Sherman doesn't shadow, though, nor does he move down into the slot. K'Waun Williams, one of the league's weaker slot men, will be tasked with JuJu Smith-Schuster for most of this game. That's a clear trouble spot that Rudolph will look to exploit, so the 49ers will deploy a handful of bodies to slow Smith-Schuster. It will then be up to Sherman and pleasant surprise Ahkello Witherspoon to lock down the boundaries, which they've done so well thus far. Funneling the ball to the middle would force Rudolph to spend the day throwing scary passes into traffic.