49ers at Steelers: Five burning questions San Francisco must answer

The San Francisco 49ers will travel to Pittsburgh to open their 2023 campaign to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sunday will mark the 23rd meeting between the two teams. San Francisco holds the edge in the series having won 12 of the previous 22 matchups, including six of the 11 games in the Steel City.

San Francisco and Pittsburgh last met in week three of the 2019 season. Despite several offensive miscues, the 49ers were able to pull out a come from behind 24-20 victory at Levi’s Stadium.

Sunday will mark the first time since 2014 the Steelers have opened their season at home. Under current head coach Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh is 4-1 at home in week one, 10-5-1 overall.

The 49ers have gone 2-2 in their previous four road season openers under Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan’s offense has struggled in week one, averaging just 16.7 points per game.

Here are my five burning questions for week 1.

1 Can Brock Purdy handle the pressure?

During Purdy’s outstanding run at the end of 2022 the 49ers quarterback was particularly good in tough situations. His passer rating of 88.6 when pressured trailed only Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa.

The 49ers will need Purdy to continue that level of play on Sunday. Pittsburgh routinely has one of the top pass rushing units in the NFL led by linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward.

Pittsburgh’s defense has seen a reduction in blitzes over the last two seasons. Instead, the Steelers have relied more on their four-man pass rush to generate pressure. That could be a good thing for the Steelers. While Purdy was good when pressured, he was even better against the blitz with a passer rating of 97.1.

2 Does Colton McKivitz keep T.J. Watt off the quarterback?

For Colton McKivitz, there’s nothing quite facing one of the best pass rushers in the NFL to open the season. McKivitz will be tasked with keeping T.J. Watt off Brock Purdy on Sunday.

McKivitz has two prior NFL starts at tackle, both on the left side against the Los Angeles Rams. Despite some struggles from McKivitz, the 49ers were able to manage a victory in each contest.

Watt is coming off an injury plagued 2022 season which saw him record just 5.5 sacks in ten games. Don’t let those numbers fool you. Watt recorded 65 sacks in the previous four seasons including a career-high 22.5 in 2021.

McKivitz has looked solid throughout training camp and limited preseason snaps. He has previously struggled with speed rushers; however, his footwork has improved as has his hand placement.

Pittsburgh’s pass rushers don’t stop at Watt. Trent Williams will have his hands full with Alex Highsmith, 14.5 sacks in 2022. Same goes for Aaron Banks with Cameron Heyward, 10.5 sacks last year.

3. Can the 49ers offensive line generate push in the running game?

One area the 49ers offense may have an advantage is working against the Steelers linebackers. The only issue there is they need to be able to generate a push up front to take advantage of that mismatch.

San Francisco’s offensive line has struggled with moving the defense during training camp and preseason. If this continues Sunday, the onus of moving the offense will fall onto the shoulders of Purdy.

The Steelers were stout against the run in 2022, allowing just 4.1 yards per rushing attempt. Pittsburgh’s defense also allowed a league low seven rushing touchdowns a year ago.

4 Will the San Francisco defense step up against the run?

San Francisco’s run defense under first year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks was suspect during the preseason. Even during the joint practice sessions with the Las Vegas Raiders, they were pushed around up front.

Pittsburgh’s three running backs led by Najee Harris could create issues for the 49ers. Harris is a solid between the tackles type back who could take advantage if San Francisco’s defensive front is unable to hold up at the point of attack. Jaylen Warren and Anthony McFarland Jr. are quicker backs with the ability to stretch out a defense.

The 49ers need to not allow Pittsburgh to get their running game on track. Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers offense has a tendency of getting impatient when opponents control the ball. This happened in two of the 49ers four regular season losses last season, at Denver and Atlanta. In both cases the opponents were able to stick with the running game, limiting possessions and taking advantage of mistakes by the offense.

5 Can the 49ers pass rush get to Kenny Pickett?

The talk around the Steelers this offseason has been the improvement of Kenny Pickett. The second-year quarterback is coming off a preseason during which he led the Steelers offense to five touchdowns on five possessions.

As impressive as those numbers are, there’s a big difference between preseason and the regular season.

During his rookie season, Pickett struggled when pressured or blitzed. He managed a passer rating of just 62.4 when pressured and 72.4 against the blitz.

On Sunday, Pickett will face a 49ers pass rush led by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa. Bosa and San Francisco agreed to terms on a record-breaking deal Wednesday. Although Kyle Shanahan stopped short of laying out the plan for Bosa, the defensive end told reporters he is ready to play the whole game if necessary.

Aside from Bosa, the 49ers also spent big to land free agent defensive tackle Javon Hargrave this offseason. The former Eagle recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks last season. He will line up alongside Arik Armstead, a formidable duo in the middle of San Francisco’s defensive line.


49ers 23 Steelers 20

This article has 17 Comments

  1. I see it like this as well, Jack.
    I have Moody proving that he can be trusted to make the game winning FG. Hopefully, a 49er win doesn’t need to depend on Moody’s leg, but at some point this season it probably will.

  2. Jack,
    You really nailed this one. Those 5 questions aren’t just the most important questions regarding this Sundays game but they are the 5 most important questions regarding this whole season. I would add a 6th that being can Jake Moody be close to as good as Robbie Gould. I believe that questions 2 and 3 are going to be the difference between a wild card season and a SB season. McKivitz’s pass blocking job will heavily rely on whether he faces lots of 2nd and 3rd down and short yardage or a lot of 2nd and 3rd and long situations. The #1 key is can the O line open holes “consistently”. Bobb McKittrick was a big believer in that long runs were a product of great RBs more than great O linemen. When grading out his O line he would remove the 2 longest runs and the 2 shortest (losses) then figure the avg. Thats where last years line failed. Because of great runs by Deebo, CMC and Mason the 49ers rush Avg. was very good. I bet if you (like McKittrick did) removed those 2 longest runs each game from the Avg ,the 9ers rush Avg would be below Avg. last season. I think the 49ers O line needs to be far more consistent in opening holes this season. Keeping Purdy and McKivitz out of too many 2nd and 3rd and long situation.

  3. The 49ers will need Purdy to continue that level of play on Sunday. Pittsburgh routinely has one of the top pass rushing units in the NFL led by linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward.

  4. Jack
    * IMO, the key to the 9ers beating the steelers is the 9ers O-Line! “IF” the 9ers O-Line can open holes for the RB’s to run thru, pick up 3rd downs, control the clock, keep Picket and the Steelers O on the bench…..The 9ers win!
    * Can RT McKivitz keep Pittsburg’s LB TJ Watt from sacking Purdy? If not, he’s capable of making it a long day forPurdy and the 9ers offense.
    * Can the 9ers DB’s control the steelers WR George Pickens? If they can, the steelers become one dimensional with RB Najee Harris. The 9er D line should be capable of controlling RB Harris.
    I look for CMC to score 2 TD’s, one running and one receiving! I also expect Samuel, Aiyuk and Kittle to have big
    * 49ers 24 – Steelers 13

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