Pittsburgh Steelers newly acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrick smiles as he warms up during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) passes over Seattle Seahawks nose tackle Bryan Mone (79) in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks at the scoreboard as he walks off the field as time runs out in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks in an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Roethlisberger did not play the second half of the game. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
San Francisco 49ers running back Matt Breida (22) runs the ball during the first half an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert (31) celebrates his touchdown during the first half an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Two straight losses to open the year, a season-ending injury to the franchise quarterback, and a West Coast trip to face an undefeated team all add up to many people writing off the Pittsburgh Steelers before the end of September.
That's just the way coach Mike Tomlin likes it.
''I don't care about many people's eyes and things of that nature, man,'' he said. ''We're used to living in the eye of the storm in this business at this level. I do enjoy the challenges and the adversity that the game presents, so from that standpoint it does create a sense of urgency that's a good fuel. But in terms of perceptions and what people are saying outside our organization, it would be tough for me to care less.''
The Steelers (0-2) are counting on that urgency to make up for the loss of Ben Roethlisberger to an elbow injury and help Mason Rudolph succeed in his first career start when Pittsburgh takes on San Francisco (2-0) in the 49ers' home opener on Sunday.
Rudolph, a third-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, beat out Josh Dobbs during training camp to be the primary backup. He played well last week during a half of work against Seattle, completing 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards with two touchdowns and an interception that came off a tipped pass.
Rudolph said he was ready for his moment even if he hadn't even gotten on the field in his first 17 games as a pro.
''There have been plenty of quarterbacks who hadn't played immediately. I was encouraged by that,'' he said. ''I tried to have a long-term mentality and understand that hopefully we play in this game a long time. And as long as I am ready for my opportunity, that's kind of all that matters.''
While the message for the Steelers is hope isn't lost despite the rough start to the season, the 49ers are trying to avoid complacency after opening the season with double-digit wins at Tampa Bay and Cincinnati.
It has been rare success for a team that took until December to win its second game in coach Kyle Shanahan's first season in 2017 and until November last year.
''I think our team is smart enough and knows the deal. There's not one person in our building, at least that I've noticed, that feels like we've arrived by any means,'' Shanahan said.
Here are some other things to watch:
The Niners are dealing with their own significant injury with star left tackle Joe Staley out for at least six weeks with a broken leg. Sixth-round rookie Justin Skule will get his first career start in place of Staley, who has started all but four games since 2011.
''It's still the game of football,'' Skule said. ''Just take a deep breath, and don't let anything get too big for myself.''
IF THE SAFETY FITZ
Pittsburgh expects to start newly acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrick just days after acquiring him from Miami. The Steelers parted with three picks, including a first-rounder in 2020, for the opportunity to bring in the versatile 22-year-old Fitzpatrick. Though Fitzpatrick played multiple positions with the Dolphins, Tomlin expects to ''anchor'' Fitzpatrick at free safety until he gets acclimated.
RUN TO DAYLIGHT
The Niners had a big day on the ground last week, rushing for 259 yards in the team's' sixth-most productive rushing day of the past decade. Making that even more impressive was that the three halfbacks in the game - Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. - all entered the league as undrafted players. That trio combined for 238 yards, the third most by undrafted players in a game since the merger.
Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief could be out of a starting job just two games into his time with Pittsburgh. Moncrief struggled with drops in the opener against New England and was targeted just once last week against Seattle, a third-quarter pass from Rudolph that smacked off Moncrief's hands and helmet and led directly to an interception. Moncrief, signed as a free agent shortly after the Steelers traded Antonio Brown to Oakland, said he has been pressing.
''I know that we haven't been able to depend on him to this point, so he's got some challenges, and we have some challenges moving forward,'' Tomlin said.
The Niners won back-to-back road games to open the season for the first time in 30 years. Now they come home for their first game at Levi's Stadium with a winning record since losing to Seattle on Thanksgiving night in 2014. The 49ers haven't had a great home-field advantage since moving into Levi's Stadium five years ago, with empty seats a regular occurrence for a team that has won only 17 games the previous four seasons.
''I don't think we've given our fans a lot to be excited about in the two years I've been here at home or the years prior,'' Shanahan said. ''But, when we have, I think our stadium has been loud.
WEST COAST WOES
Pittsburgh has struggled in recent years when the team plane has pointed toward the Pacific. The Steelers have lost each of their last four games in the Mountain and Pacific time zones dating back to 2015, including road losses to Denver and Oakland in 2018, teams that combined to go 8-22 against the rest of the league.
New York Jets wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (hamstring) was limited in practice on Thursday. Thomas should be fine to play on Monday night against the Patriots. The 31-year-old is a little bit more attractive to fantasy owners with quarterback Sam Darnold back under center. Thomas has eight catches for 109 scoreless yards the last two weeks, but he's still third on the receiving depth chart behind Robby Anderson and Jamison Crowder. The Jets have a tough matchup in the Patriots on Monday night, making Thomas more of a WR5 in fantasy.
The New Orleans Saints are doing their due diligence in making phone calls to see what's available on the trade market. Wide receiver and tight end seem to be the most likely options for them on the trade market, and they could be targeting Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert now that he is fully healthy. The Saints already have Jared Cook at tight end, but they could utilize more two-tight end sets if they were to acquire Eifert, especially since they don't have a ton of receiver depth behind Michael Thomas. In a bad Cincy offense this year, Eifert has just 15 receptions (22 targets) for 108 yards and one touchdown. He'd be more attractive in New Orleans in the second half of the season, but he wouldn't be guaranteed to be a TE1 with Cook also in the fold.
Indianapolis Colts tight end Eric Ebron (illness) and rookie wide receiver Parris Campbell (abdomen) both missed practice on Thursday. Campbell also missed practice on Wednesday and is on pace to miss his second straight game. He's well off the fantasy radar for now in redraft leagues. Ebron should be fine to play in Week 7 against the Texans, although he's a low-upside, touchdown-dependent TE2 against a Houston defense that has shut down the tight end position in 2019.
Houston Texans wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins (ribs), Will Fuller (calf, oblique) and Kenny Stills (hamstring) all practiced in full on Thursday. All three receivers should be in uniform for Week 7's divisional tilt against the Colts. Stills missed the last game and should return to split slot duties with Keke Coutee, limiting both player's fantasy upside as a WR4/5 in deeper leagues. Hopkins has been quiet this year but could blow up at any moment and is a must-start. Fuller boomed in Week 5 and busted last week. He typically has high-end WR2 upside on a week-to-week basis.
Oakland Raiders tight end Darren Waller (foot) was limited in practice on Thursday after being a full participant on Wednesday. Waller should be fine for Week 7 against the Packers, but his foot injury is worth watching. The first-year Raider should be targeted heavily with wide receiver Tyrell Williams (foot) out for the foreseeable future, but keep in mind that Waller had his worst game in Week 5 with Williams out of the lineup. The Packers have been pretty stingy against opposing wideouts, too, so they'll likely devote attention to slowing Waller down. His expected high target share should give him a high floor, so continue to roll Waller out there as a strong TE1.
Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson (quadriceps) and quarterback Case Keenum (foot, shoulder) both returned to a full practice on Thursday after sitting out on Wednesday. The Redskins were likely just resting their veterans on Wednesday, so expect Peterson and Keenum to be out there in Week 7 against the 49ers. Peterson had 20-plus carries and over 100 yards against the winless Dolphins in Week 6, but he'll have a much tougher time finding holes against San Fran's strong defense this Sunday. He makes for a low-upside RB3/flex. Keenum has a tough challenge ahead and not many weapons to work with. He's an unattractive low-end QB2.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes(knee) was ruled out of Thursday night's game after suffering a dislocated knee cap on a fourth-and-one sneak attempt. Everybody is still waiting for more information, but being ruled out so quickly is not encouraging for his availability going forward. If you have Mahomes, you may want to plan ahead at quarterback for the foreseeable future. Matt Moore is Kansas City's backup. All of the Chiefs skill players will take a hit with Mahomes likely to miss some time with this injury.
New England Patriots TE Eric Tomlinson's role within the offense is still being determined, according to head coach Bill Belichick.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen has caught 13-of-16 targets for 187 yards and three touchdowns over the last two games (Giants and Eagles). Week 7's matchup is a bit less favorable, however, as the Lions have been stingy against outside wide receivers with top cornerbacks Darius Slay and Rashaan Melvin. However, Thielen runs about one-third of his routes from the slot this season - an area that the Lions Defense has really struggled to contain. There remains a possibility that Slay shadows Thielen all over the field, which would clearly be a downgrade for Thielen's expected production. The Vikings also still lean on the run and will be featuring Dalvin Cook heavily against the Lions' weak rush defense. Start Thielen as a WR2 in Week 7 but keep in mind that his volume (and ceiling) could take a hit.
Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph is not a player you need to force into lineups in Week 7. Rudolph caught 3-of-3 targets for 36 yards in his best game of 2019 in Week 6. He has just nine catches this year and his average target distance is 2.2 yards. He's still playing at least 90% of offensive snaps every game, but he doesn't get enough targets or red-zone work to be in consideration for fantasy lineups. Rudolph is an unexciting TE3 with limited upside in a run-heavy offense and he should not be started in Week 7.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes left the Thursday night game with what looked to be some sort of knee injury. He walked to the locker room after suffering the injury.
Los Angeles Rams CB Jalen Ramsey (back) was listed as a full participant in practice Thursday, Oct. 17.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has provided an uptick in production the last two weeks, compiling 639 passing yards and a 6/1 TD/INT ratio in wins against the Giants and the Eagles. Cousins will look to keep it going against the Detroit Lions in Week 7 on the road in what should be a close contest (Vikings are currently favored by one point). The Lions Defense has not performed up to their reputation so far in 2019 as they're allowing 280 passing yards per game (fifth highest) and have surrendered multiple passing touchdowns in 3-of-5 weeks. Their pass rush hasn't been there either as they have just 10 total sacks on the season. The Lions are also getting destroyed on the ground at 133.8 rushing yards per game (sixth highest), so it does seem likely that the Vikings revert to featuring Dalvin Cook and the rushing attack as the focal point of their offense. Start Cousins as a high-end QB2 in Week 7 as he should be afforded enough opportunities to take advantage of a struggling secondary - though the likelihood of scaled-back volume limits his ceiling.
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is in line for a monster game in Week 7 against the Detroit Lions. The Lions Defense has already given up seven rushing touchdowns and are allowing 5.1 yards per carry and 133.8 rushing yards per game. They've also allowed a running back to score at least 20 PPR points in 4-of-5 weeks. Cook only received 18 touches in Week 6 against the Philadelphia Eagles and still had a useful fantasy day (54 yards and a touchdown) despite the brutal matchup. Expect his touches to return to the 20-25 range as the Vikings will again look to feature him in their run-heavy attack. Start Cook as a top-tier RB1 option with tremendous upside and consider using him in all daily formats as well.
Free-agent CB Parry Nickerson (Seahawks) signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars Thursday, Oct. 17. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.
Houston Texans WR Will Fuller (calf, oblique) fully participated in practice Thursday, Oct. 17.
Fantasy Spin: Fuller has been targeted at least seven times in four of the last five games but has posted at least 60 yards in only two games this season. He can still be considered at least a flex option in some leagues because of his big play ability.
Houston Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins (ribs) fully participated in practice Thursday, Oct. 17.
Fantasy Spin: Hopkins has caught at least five passes in every game this season but has not found the end zone in the last five games. He is still a must-start option in all leagues because of the targets he receives each game.
Houston Texans WR Kenny Stills (hamstring) fully participated in practice Thursday, Oct. 17.
Fantasy Spin: Stills appears to be on track to play this week after missing the last two weeks because of his injury. He has posted 188 yards in four games this season and could be a flex option in some deeper leagues.
Washington Redskins TE Vernon Davis (concussion) was limited during practice Thursday, Oct. 17.
Fantasy Spin: Davis needs to be cleared by doctors before he will be allowed to play, so he only has a few more days before the Week 7 game. Fantasy players in all leagues should avoid Davis this week even if he is cleared to play.
Seattle Seahawks RB Chris Carson (non-injury) was upgraded to a full participant in practice Thursday, Oct. 17.
Fantasy Spin: Carson has continued to hold off Rashaad Penny as the workhorse out of the Seahawks' backfield. He has seen 20-plus carries in three straight games and topped 100 yards each time. There's no need to worry about Penny unless Carson were to miss time.