'Every game is critical'

Mason Rudolph can't afford to warm up to his new role as the starting quarterback, not with the Steelers off to an 0-3 start.

But Rudolph wouldn't expect the benefit of a learning curve in the best of times.

"Every game's critical," Rudolph observed late Sunday afternoon following a 24-20 loss to the 49ers at Levi's Stadium. "Every game, whether you're 2-0 or 0-2 going into this game, every game's critical. Whether it's division or you're outside of the division, man, that's how I treat it.

"Obviously, 0-3 start, we're gonna put the pressure on ourselves to go and compete. We're not going to need to hear anything from the coaches. Those guys in the locker room are self-starters and they're gonna want to rally together and get back to work."

The work begins this week for Cincinnati next Monday night at Heinz Field, the first of a two-game stretch in the AFC North Division that will also include a hosting of the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 6.

The work Rudolph put in against the 49ers, the first starting assignment of his two-year NFL career produced a couple of big plays but, in Rudolph's estimation, not enough early splash.

He finished 14-for-27 passing, for 174 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 81.4.

The touchdowns covered 76 yards on a catch-and-run connection to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the third quarter and 39 yards to rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson in the fourth.

But in the opening 15 minutes the Steelers took possession at the San Francisco 33-yard line following an interception by outside linebacker T.J. Watt and at the 49ers' 24 following an interception by free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

They emerged with six points to show for those takeaways.

"A lot of mistakes," Rudolph assessed. "Obviously, we can't be that slow starting in the first half. I gotta give our team and our defense more of a chance to put some points up early and get ahead.

"With all the turnovers they created they played unbelievable and they did everything we asked of them, coach asked of them through the week, just creating turnovers and flying around. We just gotta back 'em up. We gotta have their back."

The Steelers went 0-for-2 converting third downs on their two post-turnover possessions in the first quarter on the way to a 3-for-12 effort (25 percent) on third downs throughout the afternoon.

That continued an early-season trend that saw the Steelers convert 25 percent of their third-down opportunities on Sept. 8 at New England (3-for-12) and 27 percent on Sept. 15 against Seattle (3-for-11).

"We just came out slow and I'm more to blame than anyone," Rudolph said. "Those possession downs, third downs, gotta convert. I gotta be better in those situations and give our team a chance to extend drives."

Rudolph went 4-for-7 for 96 yards and two conversions (including the 76-yard touchdown pass to Smith-Schuster), scrambled on three occasions (once moving the chains) and was sacked twice on third downs (the only two times he was dropped on the afternoon).

"I felt like we kinda got things churnin' there towards the end of the game," Rudolph said. "Just gotta get one more drive going."

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