On Sunday, the 49ers committed 5 turnovers with three of them coming in the red zone. If not for those three red zone turnovers, the result could have been much worse than 24-20. That said, the Steelers still allowed them to march up and down the field, allowing 6 of 11 conversions on third downs. Three of those six conversions were on 3rd and 1. However, the other three were on 3rd and 6, 8, and 14. San Francisco also converted a 3rd and 11 via a penalty on the Steelers. The five third downs the Steelers stopped came on 3rd and 15 (twice), 3rd and 5, 3rd and 23, and 3rd and 7 which was on a fumbled snap. Unfortunately, it seems unless the Steelers defense is able to send the offense backwards on first or second down, they are not capable of stopping a third down play. Here is a look at each of the six third downs San Francisco converted.
1st Quarter 3rd and 14 from the SF 33.
Garoppolo hit WR Richie James on a deep in route at the sticks for a first down. The Steelers were in man coverage with Minkah playing as the single-high safety. The Steelers blitzed five (including Devin Bush who was called for a hands to the face penalty) but were unable to get pressure on Garoppolo. Drive Result: Punt for a touchback.
2nd Quarter 3rd and 6 from the PIT 22.
Garoppolo threw to Kittle over the middle for a 12-yard gain. This was a pretty easy pitch-and-catch right down the hash marks. Kittle ran past Devin Bush who got turned around in coverage and the ball was in his hands before Minkah could come up and make the tackle from his deep safety spot. There looked to be some mis-communication on the outside between Bush and CB Steven Nelson on who was covering Kittle and who was covering the RB coming out of the backfield. The 49ers wouldn’t get to the end zone and were already in field goal range, so this conversion didn’t change the result much. Drive result: Field goal.
3rd Quarter 3rd and 8 from PIT 25.
This was almost an identical route to George Kittle’s conversion in the 2nd quarter. This time it was tight end Kendrick Bourne who got inside position on Joe Haden then broke towards the middle for an easy completion for Garoppolo. Terrell Edmunds could’ve come up and made a play after the catch but got caught flat-footed, allowing Bourne to run all the way down to the 3 before the trailing Haden brought him down. This was the first of two third down conversions on this drive.
3rd Quarter 3rd and 1 from PIT 1.
On the same drive, the defense would hold on the next two plays but on 3rd and goal were unable to stop a power run with a pulling guard and a fullback leading the way. This was San Francisco’s first touchdown of the day and put them up 10-6. Drive Result: Touchdown.
3rd Quarter 3rd and 1 from SF 34.
After JuJu’s long touchdown that put the Steelers back in front, the 49ers got the ball back and drove down the field. They only faced one third down, coming on the third play of the drive. It was a 3rd and 1 and Garoppolo was able to fall forward behind the push of the line to get the first down. From there, the 49ers moved down the field with relative ease and took the lead back. Drive Result: Touchdown.
4th Quarter 3rd and 1 from PIT 15.
After Conner’s fumble the defense was left in a bad spot. San Francisco easily got into the red zone and converted another 3rd and 1 with an easy QB sneak by Garoppolo. The defense would get a fortuitous holding penalty on the 49ers on the next play, setting up another third down on the same drive.
4th Quarter 3rd and 11 from PIT 14.
People want to put blame on James Conner’s fumble, but this was almost as much of a back-breaking play. A holding penalty had set back the 49ers and the Steelers forced a 3rd and 11. Tuitt and Watt pressured Garoppolo and he had to step up and scramble out of the pocket, throwing incomplete on the run. However, a flag in the secondary for defensive holding on Mark Barron gave San Francisco an automatic first down.
Barron was in coverage on George Kittle who ran a post route from the slot. As soon as Kittle broke inwards, Barron grabbed on to Kittle’s shoulder and held on, drawing the flag. The penalty not only paved the way for the 49ers game-winning touchdown, but San Francisco was also to take 45 seconds off the clock over the last two plays. Rather than Mason Rudolph getting the ball back with 2 minutes left and a tie game, the Steelers got the ball with 1:15 on the clock and trailing by 4. Drive Result: Touchdown.