SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The ball bounced off the chest of Richie James Jr., who was sweeping in front of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo as the shotgun snap arrived, and T.J. Watt dove to the Levi's Stadium grass to cradle it -- a gift from the San Francisco 49ers and, seemingly, the football gods.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, in a game they almost had to win to salvage what's left of their 21st Century swagger, had just collected their fifth takeaway of the game. With a three-point lead and 6:49 remaining, they felt certain they were on the verge of accomplishing something special.
Then the Pittsburgh offense -- devoid of its three most prolific playmakers of the decade, but buoyed by a promising second half -- prepared to close out a victory over a mistake-prone opponent against whom they held a plus-four advantage in turnover margin. At least, that was the plan.
"You'd f----- think so," veteran guard David DeCastro told me later in a quiet, shaken Steelers locker room. "I mean, what are the odds?"
In this case, a longshot scenario would turn into a long flight home. That's because, three plays after Watt's recovery, Pittsburgh squandered its good fortune and imploded: Steelers halfback James Conner took a hit from defensive end Arik Amstead and coughed up the football, with Niners defensive tackle DeForest Buckner recovering at the Pittsburgh 24.
Seven plays later -- on a drive extended by a third-down defensive holding penalty on linebacker Mark Barron -- Garoppolo zipped a five-yard touchdown pass to receiver Dante Pettis to give the Niners the lead with 1:15 remaining. Then the San Francisco defense closed out a 24-20 victory, sending 69,439 fans (or, at least, the non-Terrible-Towel-waving ones) home happy and leaving the Steelers to grapple with an 0-3 start and a completely foreign level of vulnerability.
For starters, none of the usual suspects is around to save them. The offseason departures of star halfback Le'Veon Bell (who signed with the New York Jets after sitting out the 2018 season in a contract dispute) and star wide receiver Antonio Brown (who announced Sunday morning on Twitter that he's done playing in the NFL after having been released by two teams in a two-week period) put the Steelers' offensive fortunes even more firmly in the hands of future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- but the 37-year-old suffered a season-ending elbow injury the previous Sunday, elevating second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph into the fray.
The kid showed some moxie Sunday, throwing a pair of long second-half scoring strikes to twice put the Steelers ahead, but Pittsburgh's once vaunted ground game continued to struggle, leading to some serious soul-searching after the game.
"We're dealing with a learning curve -- a new phase for us, and for him," 11th-year guard Ramon Foster said of Rudoph, who completed 14 of 27 passes for 174 yards, was sacked twice and threw a first-half interception. "Everybody's learning what we're trying to do, and the biggest thing we have to learn is consistency.
"In the meantime, [teams are] gonna shoot everything at us, cause it's a young quarterback. That's who we are right now, and until we start peeling back the layers and embarrassing people, it's gonna continue. We just lost a 16-year quarterback, and defenses are gonna try us. I think most teams are gonna want to see how much they can rattle [Rudolph] -- until we make them pay."
On Sunday against the 49ers (3-0), the Steelers' defense was money, forcing four turnovers in the game's first 18 minutes, 35 seconds. That included a pair of takeaways made possible by the newest member of The Stealers: Second-year safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, for whom Pittsburgh dealt its 2020 first-round draft pick in order to emancipate him from the Miami Dolphins.
Outsiders questioned the wisdom of the move, especially given the severity of Roethlisberger's injury and Rudolph's extremely limited body of work; theoretically, Pittsburgh might need to draft a quarterback next April, and this trade makes that a much tougher proposition.
Yet Fitzpatrick wasted no time making his presence felt, intercepting Garoppolo's pass for Pettis (off a nice deflection by Haden) with 4:44 left in the first quarter and forcing a Raheem Mostert fumble (recovered by linebacker Devin Bush at the Pittsburgh 9-yard-line) on the second play of the first quarter.
"You can't wait," Fitzpatrick said of his instant impact, which Haden said went well beyond the stat sheet.
"Oh my god -- he's a baller," Haden said. "Communication-wise, playmaker-wise, putting his hat in there ... he makes a huge difference. He balled out, and we're happy to have him."
And yet, after twice intercepting Garoppolo and recovering a pair of fumbles, the Steelers' halftime lead was just 6-3. With 30 minutes left to play, that was unnerving for the visitors.
"Yeah it was," DeCastro said. "To score [only 6], it's ugly. That's the worst part. Everybody's gonna look at the (late) fumble, but you've gotta make those plays before you get to that point, and then it won't matter. The defense played lights out. We should have controlled things, but we didn't."
Most glaringly, the Steelers failed to control the ball on the ground, rushing for 79 yards on 22 carries. Take away Rudolph's scrambles, and a pair of receiver runs, and Pittsburgh managed just 49 yards on 16 attempts, with nothing longer than a 10-yard run by Conner.
For an offensive line built to pound the ball, this continued a highly frustrating trend. And yet, for much of the second half, it looked like the Steelers would get away with it and sneak home with an emotional victory.
After a rough first half, Rudolph opened things up, finding Smith-Schuster on a crossing route that the third-year standout turned into a 76-yard scoring play in the third quarter and perfectly leading rookie (and new starter, with the demotion of Donte Moncrief) Diontae Johnson on a 39-yard touchdown throw that gave Pittsburgh a 20-17 lead with 10:22 remaining.
When Watt fell on the fumble for Takeaway No. 5, the Steelers envisioned a long, decisive drive that could have iced the game.
"Coach [Nick] Saban used to put up this turnover chart, which showed how often teams won when they were ahead by one or two or three or more in the turnover battle," Fitzpatrick said, in reference to his massively successful coach at the University of Alabama. "Usually, teams that win the turnover battle win games. But this is football. You can't ever think that way. You can't ever think you're OK."
"We didn't hold up our end," Foster said. "We've gotta protect Mason. We've gotta protect everyone. We just dropped the ball."
In this case, literally -- Conner's fumble put the Niners 24 yards away from the go-ahead score, and Garoppolo (23 of 32, 277 yards) got it done.
A few minutes after the Niners had clinched their first 3-0 start since 1998, when Steve Mariucci was in his second season, veteran cornerback Richard Sherman conceded that Big Ben's absence was a big part of it.
"They weren't in sync," Sherman said as he left the field. "Ben makes a lot happen off schedule by running around and being creative. People think it's bad, but it's a big thing for them, and they were missing it.
"I'll say this: You don't understand what you've got till it's gone."
As the Steelers left Levi's and headed for their team buses, Rudolph had a nice surprise waiting for him outside the locker room: His father, Brett, who'd flown in early Sunday after watching Mason's younger brother, Logan, a defensive end for top-ranked Clemson, in the Tigers' 52-10 home victory over Charlotte. After connecting in Dallas, Brett landed in the Bay Area and connected with one of his former college teammates: former 49ers tackle Harris Barton, who used his connections to score a pair of pregame field passes.
Did Mason know Brett was coming?
"No," Brett said afterward. "It was great to be here, though."
Said Mason: "It's a start. Long way to go."
The journey continues next Monday night, when Rudolph will make his Heinz Field debut as a starter, against another 0-3 team desperate for a victory: the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers' AFC North rivals. At that point, a football-watching nation can get an up-close-and-personal view of a team in transition.
As Sherman said, like Joni Mitchell before him, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. In the wake of Bell's and Brown's departures, there was a lot of talk about the improved vibe in Steeltown, with many people inside the organization insisting the lack of drama would pay off for Pittsburgh.
"Right," Haden said. "But there's gotta be more playmaking. The drama goes out, but those guys are playmakers. So that means all of us have to win our one-on-one battles and make plays that help us win."
Agreed Foster: "That's true, there's less (drama). Now, we're in a new phase. I would never take away from Lev or AB; those guys are Hall of Fame (caliber) players who were huge playmakers for us. Now it's Phase 2. We're in a new situation, and we have to fight our way out of it."
On Sunday, the Steelers won the turnover battle and lost the war -- and if they don't get it together soon, they could be facing a long, cold winter's worth of soul-searching.