Two years ago the San Francisco 49ers acquired quarterback Jimmy Garopollo from the New England Patriots. His first appearance as a 49er was late in a loss to Seattle, but he did drive the 49ers to a touchdown in the closing minute. He started the next week at Soldier Field, and won in Chicago over the Bears. The victory was only the 49ers second of the 2017 season.
He stated the next game, and beat the Texans in Houston, and three more victories followed that as Garopollo recorded five wins in five weeks for a team that had won only one game over the first two-thirds of the season.
Off that late season surge, you can understand why hopes were running extremely high in San Francisco for the start of the 2018 campaign. But, few things went well for the Niners last year and many attributed the disaster to the early season injury suffered by Garopollo that shelved him for the campaign.
With Garoppolo back, and the 49ers roster bolstered with the advantage of picking out of the second slot in the draft, the 49ers entered this season hopeful again. That hope turned 49ers gold when they earned an opening road win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and scored a second straight road conquest last week over the Cincinnati Bengals, 41-17.
The doubt after last year’s collapse has been replaced by a swagger that has them strutting into their home opener favored by nearly a touchdown over one of the two teams in the league with more Super Bowl wins than San Francisco, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While the Niners have been collecting a pair wins on the road to open their 2019 campaign, the Steelers have lost on the road and at Heinz Field. In addition to coming up short against the Patriots two weeks ago, 33-3, they got tripped up last Sunday by a 28-26 margin at home against the Seattle Seahawks. Perhaps even more crippling than the defeat, the Steelers lost franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season with an elbow injury that required surgery.
What does that create this week when the Steelers come calling to Levi’s Stadium?
It means the young 49ers are moving into rarefied air for them, expected to win a third straight and get by one of the teams that appeared most challenging when the schedule was first released. Instead of getting the more common edition of a Steelers team playing as one of the best in football, San Francisco draws a Steelers squad struggling and needing to replace their star quarterback.
Enter Mason Rudolph, who the Steelers selected in the third round of the 2018 draft. He played his college ball at Oklahoma State, and appears to have the poise and talent to step in for the injured Roethlisberger. Last week, after Big Ben went down, Rudolph completed 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He played well enough that the Steelers put up 26 points, but the other questionable area for Pittsburgh, defense, didn’t allow that to be enough to beat Seattle.
Now the winless Steeleers travel west to meet a 49ers team flying high while Pittsburgh is fighting for their lives. On paper, the Steelers look vulnerable to what appears to be a vastly improved San Francisco team, but motivationally, it’s a mismatch.
Qoxhi Picks: Pittsburgh Steelers (+6) over San Francisco 49ers