PITTSBURGH — In Row 2 of the press box, Trent Baalke finally put down his binoculars and just stared at the fiasco on the field, eyes glazed, chin resting on his left hand, oblivious to the Bay Area media members who were giggling and wisecracking within earshot. There was no reason for the 49ers’ general manager to keep using a powerful lens for what was so grossly and miserably evident.
His creation, on this Sunday, was an abomination.
And wasn’t it all happening close enough to Michigan, a couple of states away, that Baalke could hear Jim Harbaugh laughing his khaki-covered ass off?
His defensive backs couldn’t cover Antonio Brown if he wore flip-flops and a burlap sack. His pass-rushers couldn’t touch Ben Roethlisberger if the opposing blockers took a Primanti’s sandwich break. His defensive coordinator was no “Mangenius,” but his scheme did get Manhandled. His offensive line was as collapsible as it looked in the preseason. His quarterback didn’t introduce himself to a traditional wide receiver until late in the game, when they decided to make a touchdown together, perhaps because the offensive coordinator doesn’t trust the quarterback to throw downfield or do much of anything beyond read-option runs that were obsolete two years ago in professional football.
There was an 18-play drive that resulted in no points, thanks to Bruce Miller’s dropped touchdown pass. There was a 17-play drive that resulted in a field goal after the 49ers went backwards, from first-and-goal at the 10, thanks to terrible pass protection and lame playcalling. As for the breakout running back from six nights earlier, Carlos Hyde was punished all day by the Steelers defense and was examined for a concussion — he claims to be OK — after he was popped on the crown of his helmet.
“I felt dizzy,” he said after rushing for 43 yards, or 125 fewer than last Monday.
Then you had internal issues. Colin Kaepernick said in-game communications between him and the coaches, “as far as clarity,” caused the offense to be “a little slow out of the huddle” and incur delay issues. There was Hyde’s admission that his former Ohio State teammate, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, had told him, “We’re gonna lock in on you,” something the 49ers’ coaches should have known beforehand and, of course, adapted to when it became obvious.
Yes, a sartorial gripe. On a sunny day in his hometown, Jim Tomsula looked uncomfortable in that head-to-toe black sweatsuit. Whatever praise the local paper gave him as the latest in western Pennsylvania’s cradle of coaches — Mike McCarthy and Marvin Lewis among current contemporaries, Bill Cowher and Mike Ditka as past Super Bowl champions — it all seemed a little premature after a 43-18 thumping at Heinz Field. No amount of servings from his favored Mineo’s Pizza, or Pizza King in Munhall, or even an intervention from his beloved Uncle Tic, could help Jimmy T now.
“We obviously don’t need to be letting people throw things over our head,” said Tomsula, still stunned from the Roethlisberger-to-Brown lob barrage.
Or, as CEO Jed York tweeted, “Tough loss. Appreciate the #49ersFaithful around the world for the support. Hats off to the @steelers….”
Even the tweets were lame.
Maybe this was karma’s way of punishing Tomsula for sneaking into Three Rivers Stadium to watch the Steelers as a kid. More likely, it was the NFL’s way of informing the 49ers that they aren’t the team they appeared to be Monday night, or anywhere close. We knew they faced logistical issues in having to travel 2,600 miles only four days after their victory over Minnesota, while the Steelers were playing at home on nine days’ rest. Still, no amount of jet lag makes a team look this feeble in so many ways. When Baalke was peering through his binoculars, let’s hope he took some notes about the Steelers, a serious NFL operation.
Even without one of the league’s best weapons in Le’Veon Bell, who was serving a league suspension, the Steelers showed Baalke and Tomsula what an offensive machine looks like. Roethlisberger simply dropped back, waited for Brown to beat one or more defensive backs — Kenneth Acker usually was the most scorched — and lobbed the ball for an easy pitch-and-catch. Only these babies went for 59 yards, 56 yards, 28 yards, 17 yards and on and on, for a total of 195 yards on nine catches. When Big Ben got bored with Brown, he made chicken salad out of ex-Raiders flop Darrius Heyward-Bey, who caught a 35-yard scoring pass and a 41-yarder to set up another. And Markus Wheaton, who caught a 48-yarder. No NFL quarterback, including Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, has been better at home the last two seasons than Roethlisberger.
Uh, what happened defensively? Let it be known that Bowman became the first player this season to acknowledge the obvious: The offseason mass exodus has gutted the unit, which yielded 453 yards to Steelers, 369 in the air.
“You’re comparing this team to what we had in the past. We had probably eight or nine vets on our defense,” Bowman said. “We just need to respond. This is the NFL. We’re taking a loss like this, and we’re a young team. That’ll be the great challenge for us.”
Good luck. Acker may need weeks to recover from the burn marks left by Brown, the sport’s most breathtaking playmaker. “It was a learning experience for myself,” said the second-year cornerback. “Nobody likes the feeling I’m feeling.”
Said linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who last week was referring to defensive coordinator Eric Mangini as “Mangenius”: “Hats off to the Steelers. They were more prepared.”
Roethlisberger’s arm and command of the scene are more pronounced when juxtaposed against Kaepernick, who is not allowed to use his similarly big arm downfield after finishing tied with Geno Smith near the bottom of last year’s deep-pass accuracy metrics. He dinks and dunks. He fakes the option and runs for yardage. But when it was clear in the first half that the Steelers would be going bombs-away, the 49ers made no attempt to engage in a shootout. Isn’t that why they acquired Torrey Smith? When it was much too late, long after the Steelers had lost interest, Kaepernick found Smith on a 75-yard scoring play. Attention, Geep Chryst. Throw more, please.
“You can’t settle for field goals,” Kaepernick said. “Obviously, with the offense the Steelers have, we have to match the touchdowns, and we didn’t do that.”
So, why not open up the passing game? “We got to our passing game,” Kaepernick said. “We just got to it a little too late.”
In garbage time, in fact. “You have to be able to take what the defense is giving you,” said Kaepernick, addressing the underneath throws that looked so tame compared to the Big Ben deluge. “There were times when they were playing deep on most of our plays, and we weren’t going to be able to throw the ball over their head or down the field. That limits you to shorter, underneath passes.”
No, it calls for offensive creativity. The 49ers have talent. They don’t know how to maximize it. The Steelers’ defense isn’t what it was in the Steel Curtain days or in the recent Dick LeBeau days, but the aura was still there Sunday, punishing the 49ers with preparation, speed, might and energy.
For someone whose homecoming was a major media story in two regions, Tomsula couldn’t wait to get out of Pittsburgh. He quickly walked around the locker room and asked each player, “How’s your body?” Then, to no one in particular, he kept repeating the same message.
“No excuses. We got beat.”
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.