— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) September 23, 2019
SANTA CLARA — San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo couldn’t see.
As wide receiver dante Pettis flexed for the crowd, gesticulating wildly after spiking the ball on the center of the helmet logo in the south end zone having caught the game-winning touchdown, Garoppolo was mobbed by his offensive linemen, with the big, sweaty arms of Mike McGlinchey draped over his shoulders.
In an ugly game that saw five and four fumbles from a San Francisco team that was last in the NFL in turnover margin a year ago, it was a strong, evasive and accurate Garoppolo, combined with a reinvigorated pass rush, that spurred San Francisco to a 24-20 win over the Ben Roethlisberger-less Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the 49ers’ first win with a minus-4 turnover margin since Nov. 8, 1998 against Carolina — the last season they started 3-0.
Last year, without Garoppolo, the 49ers fell 28-18 to the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 7 despite outgaining them 447-220. Like this Sunday, San Francisco turned the ball over five times, throwing two picks while fumbling four times and losing three. Both teams wound up going 4-12.
This Sunday, though, the 49ers had a vastly improved defense, and Garoppolo, who, with 277 passing yards, outgained the entire Pittsburgh offense, which generated just 241 yards to the 49ers’ 436.
Garoppolo went 23-of-32 for a touchdown, but in the first 10 minutes, threw two interceptions — both off the hands of receivers.
In those 10 minutes, the 49ers added a fumbled pitch, had to burn a timeout because of a personnel issue and had a touchback punt. Defensively, though, they held the Steelers to just two field goals off of four first-half turnovers, and both of those came on drives that started inside the San Francisco 35.
“We took it as Murphy’s Law,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “You want to slap Murphy in the face, and we did that today.”
One turnover didn’t result in points, but rather took points away: Raheem Mostert took a Minkah Fitzpatrick helmet to the arm and lost a ball inside the 10-yard line at the start of the second quarter. San Francisco had 206 yards at halftime, but only three points to show for them.
“We never flinched,” said linebacker Fred Warner. “We went out there every time thinking we’d get the ball back.”
The 49ers finally did generate a turnover of their own in the third quarter, thanks to a collapsing pocket and an Arik Armstead pressure on Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. K’Waun Williams hauled in San Francisco’s fifth interception of the year — after the 49ers generated only two picks a season ago — to put the 49ers at the Pittsburgh 22.
Taking advantage of protection that wasn’t there in the first half, Garoppolo hit Kendrick Bourne on crossing route to pick up a first down inside the red zone, and Jeff Wilson Jr. punched it in two plays later for his third touchdown in two weeks for a 10-6 lead.
After Juju Smith Schuster busted Ahkello Witherspoon on a cross for a 76-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers a 13-10 advantage with just under six minutes to go in the third, Garoppolo found his tempo again, hitting Deebo Samuel twice for 31 yards on a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive. That ended with another Wilson punch-in (his team-high fourth) with 56 seconds left in the third, giving the 49ers a 17-13 lead.
“The mindset of the locker room, it’s complementary football,” Garoppolo said. “When we turned the ball over early, and they only got six points out of it, and then K’Waun gets the huge interception, we go down and score, all that stuff, that’s how you create a good football team. We’re getting there.”
The offensive errors, though, soon returned. Rookie tackle Justin Skule — starting in place of injured All-Pro Joe Staley — was called for holding on a Matt Breida run, then laid a blindside block on defensive tackle Cameron Heyward on a Garoppolo scramble, erasing the gain and setting the 49ers back to their own nine. They punted.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Witherspoon went down with a foot strain, and the Steelers went right after his replacement Jason Verrett, who committed a blatant pass interference penalty then blew coverage on a 39-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson with 10:22 to go.
San Francisco’s fifth turnover — by Richie James on a mistimed motion on a fake jet sweep inside the Pittsburgh 10 — appeared to cost the 49ers another scoring chance.
“As soon as it happened, I looked up to see how much time was left,” McGlinchey said. “There were six-ish minutes. I knew it wasn’t over. I knew we still had a chance. Our defense is different. There are guys over there that are built different.”
On just the third play of the ensuing drive, Arik Armstead looked to wrap up running back James Conner in the backfield, but wound up stripping him, allowing DeForest Buckner to pounce for a fumble recovery.
“That was the loudest I’ve heard this crowd,” linebacker Fred Warner said of the crowd of 69,439 come to watch the first San Francisco team to open 2-0 since 2014.
“It’s not always pretty,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “Sometimes, we’ve got to keep you on the edge of your seats. Got to keep you involved.”
Another Skule holding call looked to quash another drive, but a defensive holding call bailed the 49ers out after Garoppolo escaped no fewer than three sacks to deliver a dropped pass in the end zone to Pettis. It ws the second straight drive on which he had to escape such pressure.
Garoppolo was hit eight times and sacked once on 33 dropbacks, after only taking two hits in his first two weeks of live action since tearing his ACL in Week 3 of last season.
Both Sherman and Shanahan think Garoppolo likes getting hit, and in fact, he had his best game since his return, while taking his biggest beating. “I think it wakes him up a little bit,” Sherman said.
“I’ve been told that before,” Garoppolo said, smiling.
“He hung in there, took some big hits, made some big throws, and when we did give him the time, he didn’t miss much,“ Shanahan said.
After being chased around and groped at by the Steelers for much of the afternoon, Garoppolo was nevertheless relieved to be enveloped by his celebrating offensive line, after threading a pass through traffic to find Pettis coming back to the ball on a stick route for a five-yard touchdown with 1:20 left.
“Those guys battled up front,” Garoppolo said. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight. They have a good D front and everything. I thought they played phenomenal.”
Now 3-0 for the first time in 21 years, San Francisco has a bye next week before facing Cleveland on Monday night, giving Garoppolo some time to recover, Witherspoon time to heal and the 49ers time to tighten up.
“It’s a good start,” Garoppolo said. “Three wins isn’t going to get you anything in this league.”