In the highly-anticipated opening week of the NFL season, two of the league’s most decorated franchises went head-to-head in a game that promised to be a spectacle. The Pittsburgh Steelers, widely hailed as the pre-season darling, were pitted against the Super Bowl-hopeful San Francisco 49ers in a matchup that fans had been eagerly waiting for.
However, instead of the close contest that many had predicted, the 49ers delivered an unexpected masterclass in football, dominating the Steelers in almost every facet of the game. The visitors not only silenced the home crowd but effectively took the wind out of Pittsburgh’s sails, compelling them to reconsider their strategies and regroup.
The scoreboard at the end of the game told a story of sheer dominance, as it displayed a staggering 30-7 in favor of San Francisco. As analysts and fans alike grapple with this surprising outcome, we’ve decided to break down three crucial takeaways from this encounter for each team, shedding light on what might lie ahead for both franchises.
San Francisco 49ers Performance
In a display of sheer prowess and coordination, the San Francisco 49ers showcased why they are among the Super Bowl contenders this season. Defying expectations and silencing critics, they stormed the field with a performance that was both electrifying and methodical. Demonstrating a perfect blend of offensive flair and defensive might, the 49ers set the tone for what promises to be a remarkable season ahead.
49ers offense starts hot
49er fans have become accustomed to their team starting slow, with Kyle Shanahan holding a 2-4 record in season openers as head coach. This time last year, the team were coming off a dreary 19-10 loss to the Chicago Bears, who would go on to have the worst record in the league.
That version of the team felt a distant memory compared to the one that took to the field at Acrisure Stadium this weekend. The 49ers were in midseason form, with all their offensive weapons getting involved and Brock Purdy picking up exactly where he left off last year. The highlight of the day came on a 65-yard Christian McCaffrey touchdown, which perfectly encapsulated what the 49ers stand for. Yards after contact from McCaffrey and punishing blocking from receivers to clear a path to the end zone is exactly what we have come to expect from Shanahan’s 49ers.
One of the blocking receivers who joined McCaffrey on his 65-yard burst was Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers’ highest-graded offensive player according to PFF. It was the perfect start to the season for Aiyuk, collecting all 8 of his targets for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns, in addition to his highlight reel blocking excursion. His two touchdowns came on a lovely red zone route that put the cornerback on his backside, and a perfect back-shoulder throw where Aiyuk made a fantastic contested catch. Aiyuk has been threatening a breakout for a while now, and his blow-up season might have just started.
Defensive playmakers on show
It wasn’t just the 49ers’ offense that performed like a well-oiled machine, as the defense went straight back to their dominant ways. They constantly had Kenny Pickett under pressure, forcing wayward throws, recording 5 sacks and 2 interceptions. The star of the show was sophomore edge defender Drake Jackson, who had 3 sacks, including one on the first drive to force a three-and-out. The 49ers added Javon Hargrave, who also had a sack, to the interior line over the offseason, and if Drake Jackson starts to impact games from the edge, the already elite 49er defense will go from strength to strength. We haven’t even mentioned Nick Bosa, who looked strong on his return, despite not registering in the box score.
Just like the 49ers’ offense was operating in true 49er fashion, so was the defense. Their trademark physicality was on show, with Fred Warner and Talanoa Hufunga laying punishing hits on Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth in the first half. The Steelers’ offense came out of the pre-season with a lot of hype and the 49ers’ defense has punctured that with ease. The hype has now turned to concern and the Steelers will be looking forward to setting the record straight against a non-49er defense.
Offensive line questions?
Whilst there is plenty to celebrate for the 49ers, the one area for concern will be the offensive line. Out of all of the 49ers’ offensive players graded by PFF, three of the bottom five were offensive linemen. Guard Spencer Burford came last with a shocking 28.6 offensive grade. He was joined in the bottom five by right tackle, Colton McKivitz, and fellow guard, Aaron Banks.
Kyle Shanahan is fantastic at scheming open his receivers and making life easy for his quarterbacks, but this level of offensive line play is concerning. We can give them a bit of slack given that they were going up against TJ Watt, who will be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, but improvements will be needed, especially given Purdy’s elbow injury last year. Trent Williams is the rock on this line, recording a much better PFF grade of 70.7, good enough for 15th amongst tackles. He did, however, appear a bit hobbled at times during the game. It is a reminder of how fragile this unit is for the 49ers, who would be in a lot of trouble if Williams were to suffer an injury.
Pittsburgh Steelers Performance
The Pittsburgh Steelers, having entered the season with significant anticipation as pre-season favorites, found themselves grappling with a reality check in week 1. Their encounter with the San Francisco 49ers presented a series of challenges that seemed to throw them off balance. Despite their reputation and promise, the Steelers faced a series of setbacks, underscoring the unpredictable nature of the game and highlighting areas in need of immediate attention.
Kenny Pickett struggles
This week 1 performance from the Pittsburgh Steelers was a reality check for a team that had become a pre-season darling. Expectations were sky-high for the Mike Tomlin-led team, who played their starters more than most other teams in the lead-up to week 1.
Unfortunately, Kenny Pickett and co. fell flat on their face in their attempt to hit the ground running. Pickett looked nervous and was wayward with his passes, throwing 2 interceptions and missing plenty more. He threw behind Diontae Johnson on a slant route that looked destined for the end zone and often threw way over his open receivers.
He wasn’t helped by his running backs, who were mostly forgotten about after the team fell to an early 20-point deficit. Their putrid 41 yards on the ground, combined with a skittish Pickett, meant that the Steelers could only muster up a net loss of 9 yards from their first five drives, which also featured an interception.
TJ Watt is still good
On the plus side, we can confirm that TJ Watt is still good at football. Very good. He received the highest grade on the Steelers and was also the highest-graded edge defender in the league, with 94.4. He did his very best to be a game-wrecker on a team that otherwise didn’t look at all threatening, recording 3 sacks, 2 fumbles (one of which was recovered) and 5 quarterback hits. He came out of the blocks hot at the weekend and will be eyeing a Defensive Player of the Year campaign. At this rate, he will be eyeing the sack record as well (22.5 sacks by Michael Strahan in 2001).
Early injury setbacks
To compound the miserable performance by the Steelers, they also suffered some key injuries on both sides of the ball. Big defensive tackle Cameron Heyward will be out for up to eight weeks with a groin injury that requires surgery. Heyward has been to the Pro Bowl in each of the last six seasons, barely missing any games in that time. He has had over 10 sacks in each of the last two seasons and his presence will be dearly missed. As is often the case, rumors of how the team will replace that production are already circling. Perhaps, a Watt double act on the Steelers’ D-line, bringing JJ Watt to town?
The other key injury was to Diontae Johnson, who looks set to miss at least a month with a hamstring injury. Johnson fell to the ground in visible agony after a long catch-and-run on Sunday and his stint on the sideline will be a blow to quarterback Kenny Pickett. After the shambles that was his week one performance, Pickett needs all the help he can get, and Diontae Johnson is the perfect weapon for a struggling quarterback. Unlike fellow receiver George Pickens, Johnson gets open with ease and has led the team in receptions in each of the last two seasons. In his absence, the Steelers will be hoping that Pickens can make improvements in his sophomore season. New signing Allen Robinson and rookie Calvin Austin III will also expect to see more work now.
In the ever-unpredictable world of the NFL, week 1 brought surprising revelations for both the San Francisco 49ers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the 49ers showcased their offensive might and a defense that promises a strong season, there remain questions about the resilience of their offensive line. The Steelers, despite the preseason optimism, have found themselves with more questions than answers, particularly in their offense and the looming injury concerns. As the season unfolds, both teams will undoubtedly seek to build on their strengths and address their weaknesses. Early games often set the tone, but it’s the entirety of the season that truly tests a team’s mettle. Only time will tell how each franchise navigates the challenges ahead.