Colin Kaepernick is sacked by Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier, one of five sacks the Steelers had Sunday. (Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — The 49ers, who started their week with a bang, ended it with a belly flop. Which end of the week represents the real 49ers? Are they the competitive squad that took apart the Vikings? Or the inept group that was throttled 43-18 by the Steelers?
That remains to be seen. All the physicality and tenacity that was on display last Monday night vanished at the bottom of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
Please ignore the final score, because the 49ers’ two fourth-quarter touchdowns seem to have come after the Steelers defense had mostly lost interest, as well as sat some starters. But the late scores did allow Jim Tomsula, who sustained his first loss as an NFL head coach, to talk about his team’s fight, particularly on offense.
The 49ers accomplished some notable feats Sunday, but not in a good way. The 43 points allowed were the most the 49ers had given up in 71 months, since a game against Atlanta in 2009 when Mike Singletary was the coach. In other words, no team coached by Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio ever received such a punishment. It was also the 49ers’ first loss in the Eastern time zone since the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Ravens in 2011.
It was startling to see the vaunted 49ers defense, the hallmark of the team for so long, get pushed around so badly. They looked exactly like a team that had lost most of its defensive leaders. No pass rush — the defense registered no sacks or quarterback hits. And a scorched secondary.
“We just need to respond,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “We’re a young team. That’ll be a great challenge for us.
“It’s my job and the veterans’ job, to get the young guys ready and prepared so we can move on from this.”
After the game, Tomsula walked around the locker room shaking hands with each player and asking how his body was. It was a valid question, because the 49ers were physically outplayed on both sides of the ball.
The defense was torched over and over again by the big-play capabilities of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and super-talented receiver Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger had plenty of time to throw and seemed to be toying with the 49ers. On one 48-yard reception, Roethlisberger exploited a mismatch of linebacker Michael Wilhoite on speedy receiver Markus Wheaton.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers took away the 49ers’ running game. They weren’t going to let Carlos Hyde rush for 168 yards again. He gained only 43 before leaving the game late in the third quarter to be evaluated for a concussion. Though Hyde was cleared, Tomsula chose not to put him back into a game that was out of hand.
The 49ers’ offensive line was porous, giving up five sacks, eight quarterback hits, and forcing Colin Kaepernick into desperation — not designed — runs. Kaepernick passed for 335 yards, but almost all of that came in the second half as the 49ers tried frantically to get back into the game.
“We got to our passing game,” Kaepernick said. “We just got to it a little too late.”
Just as they did in their worst moments last season, the 49ers struggled in the red zone. Two lengthy drives — of 17 and 18 plays — yielded only three points.
“You can’t settle for field goals,” Kaepernick said.
At times the 49ers couldn’t get plays off on time, once getting flagged for delay of game immediately after a timeout. Tomsula has preached “tempo, tempo, tempo” from the start and worked hard to make the offensive mechanism smooth. Those errors were supposed to vanish along with coordinator Greg Roman. But the offense looked a lot like it did last year, without the nasty tweets from the general manager’s daughter.
“That’s inexcusable,” Tomsula said of the delay penalties. “I have to have that cleaned up. That’s me.”
To Tomsula’s credit, he was as levelheaded about his team’s performance as he was Monday night, and his team seemed to mimic his tone.
“I said it last week and I’ll say it again this week,” Tomsula said. “We’ve got to keep going. We’re not going to overreact when we win. We’re not going to overreact when there is a loss.”
The 49ers have a difficult road ahead. They play at Arizona next week — the Cardinals are the only undefeated team in the NFC West. Then they host Green Bay before making another trip to the East Coast to face the Giants.
“We’ve got to find a way to get our confidence and swag back,” Wilhoite said.