PITTSBURGH -- Coach Mike Nolan won a replay challenge overturning a fumble, but the puzzling ruling that came out of it hurt the San Francisco 49ers in a 37-16 loss to the Steelers on Sunday.
In the third quarter, Vernon Davis latched on to a 22-yard pass from Alex Smith an instant before being upended at the Pittsburgh 10-yard line by safety Troy Polamalu, losing the ball after crashing head-first into the ground.
Officials initially ruled it was Pittsburgh's ball at the 49ers' 47-yard line after safety Ryan Clark recovered the ball and took it 43 yards the other way. After the review, though, the throw to Davis on third down was determined to be an incomplete pass.
In a statement to a pool reporter after the game, referee Gerald Austin said Davis had not gotten both feet clearly on the ground before being turned over, hitting the ground and losing the ball.
Instead of first and goal at the 10-yard line with a chance to pull within four points of Pittsburgh, the 49ers were left with fourth and 13 at the 32. Joe Nedney kicked a 49-yard field goal to make it 17-9 with 4:46 remaining in the third quarter, but the Steelers regained the momentum and handed the 49ers (2-1) their first loss.
"It was a big change in the game," said Nolan, who joked bitterly that he offered his prescription sunglasses to an official after hearing his interpretation. "I thought it was a clear catch-and-down (by contact), but you can't use that as an excuse."
Davis, who suffered a sprained right knee on Polamalu's hit and didn't return, was more emphatic than his coach. His shoulder and elbow hit the ground before the ball came out.
"It should have been a catch. I was stunned," Davis said. "That was a big turning point, because we were coming on. We were attacking those guys. We were throwing the ball, running. We were doing well."
Austin said Davis got only one foot down and the toe of his other foot just glanced off the turf before Davis was hit and crashed to the turf.
"You have to be clearly down, and if he goes to the ground, he has to maintain control of the ball," Austin said. "That is the rule of the process of the game, two feet clearly down, and if he goes to the ground, he has to hold it."
Not much went right for the 49ers after that.
Ben Roethlisberger slipped a couple of sacks to keep a drive alive, leading to a 49-yard field goal that started the Steelers' 20-7 run in the fourth quarter.
With Frank Gore bottled up -- he was held to 39 yards by a Pittsburgh defense that didn't allow a 100-yard rusher for a 28th consecutive game -- and the scoreboard showing a 14-point deficit and time running low, the 49ers began to put the ball in the air.
Smith's first interception of the season followed. Thinking Taylor Jacobs was breaking out, Smith threw a pass right into Bryant McFadden's arms, and the defensive back returned it 50 yards for a touchdown.
Smith, who threw for a season-high 209 yards on 17-of-35 passing, went back to Jacobs for a 21-yard score -- Smith's first touchdown pass of the year.
But the Steelers scored another touchdown late on Najeh Davenport's 39-yard run.
The 49ers, foiled in a bid for their first 3-0 start since 1998, actually scored first. Davis turned a short pass from Smith into a 31-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 14. But two passes to Davis into the end zone fell incomplete, and the 49ers settled for Nedney's 32-yard field goal.
"The pressure was coming," Davis said. "Alex had to let it go, and he couldn't land them the way he would normally."
Allen Rossum returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a Pittsburgh touchdown, breaking up the middle, eluding a diving tackle by one defender at about the 30 and shooting past Nedney and into the clear.
No 49er touched Rossum during the first kickoff return for a touchdown against San Francisco since Dallas' Woody Dantzler went 84 yards on Dec. 8, 2002.
The defense, playing without linebacker Manny Lawson after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice Wednesday, gave the offense another scoring opportunity. Lawson's replacement, Hannibal Navies, broke through to sack Roethlisberger and force a fumble that he recovered at the Pittsburgh 22.
But the 49ers made little headway and Nedney kicked a 22-yard field goal to make it 7-6.
"We've got to capitalize more," Gore said. "Three points is good, but seven is better. Our offense just has to come together. We're not together right now. The defense is doing everything they can out there, and we're not matching them at all."