Richard Sherman remembers facing Ben Roethlisberger at the height of his powers. Four years ago, Sherman and his Seattle teammates couldn't stop Rothlisberger from throwing for 456 yards against the "Legion of Boom" secondary. On Sunday, Sherman faced Big Ben's replacement, Mason Rudolph, who experienced the typical ups of a first-time starter, going 14 of 27 for 174 yards and two touchdowns with an interception in Pittsburgh's 24-20 loss to San Francisco. While they played better in the second half, the Steelers' offense produced just 76 yards in total offense in the first half while scoring just six points despite Pittsburgh's defense forcing four turnovers in the game's first 30 minutes.
"They weren't in sync," Sherman told NFL.com's Michael Silver after the game. "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."
Without Big Ben under center, the 49ers loaded up the box while daring Rudolph to throw. While Rudolph eventually found some success (he threw a 76-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 39-yard score to rookie Diontae Johnson), the same couldn't be said about a Steelers rushing attack that gained just 79 yards on 22 carries.
"We're dealing with a learning curve -- a new phase for us, and for him," veteran guard Ramon Foster said after Sunday's game. "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."
Rudolph, to his credit, put Sunday's loss on his shoulders, even though the Steelers' third loss in as many games was a team effort. Pittsburgh's defense, as good as they were in forcing five turnovers, allowed the 49ers to make the game-winning score with 1:15 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"When you get 'em down, you gotta work in concert as a football team," said Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin. "They worked in better concert than we did. When we put their defense on a short field in the first half, they made us settle for three. When our defense was on a short field in the second half, they got touchdowns. So that's all of us, collectively, as a football team. We didn't do enough today to win it. We didn't do enough today in concert to eventuate the positive. We didn't work in concert well enough to minimize the negative."
While there are many factors that played into the Steelers' 0-3 start, the way Pittsburgh can get themselves out of their current hole is quite simple. Rudolph -- and the rest of the team's passing attack -- has to start striking fear into opposing defenses. This will not only help put points on the board, but it will help open things up for a Steelers' rushing attack that is currently one of the NFL's least productive units. That would also help extend drives while giving Pittsburgh's defense more time on the sideline.
Sherman's right. The Steelers' passing attack isn't the same without Big Ben. Roethlisberger's improvisation -- particularly with Antonio Brown -- made the Steelers' offense one of the league's best over the past decade. But that doesn't mean that Rudolph and Pittsburgh's offense can't reach their own level of success while eventually becoming one of the league's more formidable units by season's end.
To do that, Pittsburgh's new skill position players must step up and fill the voids left by Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers' offensive line, thought to be one of the team's stronger units before the season began, will have to rise to the challenges that come with having a first-year starter behind them. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner will have to find more ways to get his young quarterback into a groove early in games.
Above all, it will come down to Rudolph and how much he improves during the course of the season.