Three games in, and the 49ers -- no longer invincible -- have discovered their own inconvenient truth: Frank Gore, playing his guts out week after week, cannot carry them.
Their 2-0 record, flimsily constructed out of Popsicle sticks, paste and a winning margin of four total points, disintegrated Sunday on the road once an elite NFL defense took direct aim at the 49ers' most dependable scoring threat.
The Steelers stacked the box, planted safety Troy Polamalu in the rushing lanes, blitzed quarterback Alex Smith and gradually overpowered their NFC West opponent, 37-16, sending streams of delirious Pittsburgh folks home from Heinz Field early.
And, yes, the 49ers did throw the ball to tight end Vernon Davis, as per his request. Not that he caught them all.
Or that his four receptions for 56 yards helped all that much, especially when referee Gerald Austin interpreted a third-quarter Davis catch-and-tumble reception at the Steelers' 32-yard line as an incomplete pass.
But as coach Mike Nolan pointed out, there was more variety in the heavily critiqued vanilla 49ers attack this week. More bootlegs for Smith, who finally threw his first touchdown pass, a 21-yarder to Taylor Jacobs in the blowout fourth quarter. More shotgun. An unusual pass attempt to heretofore unused vertical threat Ashley Lelie, who appeared to rationalize Nolan's lack of faith in his free- agent wideout by dropping the ball.
Gore, along with his teammates on offense, realize they no longer can live by the run on first and second down, or the what-the-heck field goal. Certainly they can't depend on the generosity of their mistake-prone division opponents.
"I tried. But they came and played good defense," said Gore, a man of few words and simple truths who had only 14 carries for 39 yards against the Steelers' third-ranked defense. "We've just got to play better offense right now. We're struggling."
By failing to capitalize early on prime opportunities -- particularly, a first-quarter sack of Ben Roethlisberger, along with a forced fumble and fumble recovery by linebacker Hannibal Navies that was wasted when the drive stalled at the Steelers' 4 -- the 49ers practically invited the ensuing fourth-quarter rout.
"It's real frustrating. Like I said, you get a touchdown, it's better for the team. Three points is good, but seven points is better," said Gore, who was inconsolable afterward. "It would have been a better game."
Settling for three points time after time because of dropped passes, poorly timed routes and a lack of urgency has caught up to the 49ers, and …