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Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers vs. Steelers: Keys to Victory

Marc Adams
Sep 5, 2023 at 9:26 AM

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In a week-one matchup featuring two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, the San Francisco 49ers will travel to western Pennsylvania to play the Pittsburgh Steelers this coming Sunday. The two teams have combined to win a total of 11 Super Bowl championships.

There are a handful of important storylines heading into this game, from Brock Purdy's comeback from a torn UCL to Nick Bosa's holdout, to Kenny Pickett entering his second season in the league. But the biggest storyline will be what happens on the field, and who comes out victorious.

Recently, I posted a couple of videos on my YouTube channel, in which we were talking about this game. In one video, I asked Brian Peacock, of Locked On 49ers, if he thought the 49ers would win this game. In the second video, I asked Katie Mox, of CBS SportsHQ, what she thought about the game. Let's just say both videos brought out some pretty cocky Pittsburgh fans.

One Steelers fan, Christian, sounds like a reasonable person. He posted, "As a Steelers fan, I appreciate this take. Y'all have a solid squad, it'll be a good game!" That was a nice comment. But it went downhill after that.

Here are just a few statements from some very confident and outspoken Steelers fans:

"Stop it don't give them no hope we gonna kick 49ers azzzzz..." - steelers9417

"Pittsburgh wins by 20 points….Pittsburgh is the most dangerous team in the NFL right now." - Weaponx-pv5pj

"Hell no, there will be no bullying of the Steelers. Niners are going to have a long day." - Ben

"Won't even be close. Steelers by 21." - Lex

"The Steelers will roll the Niners in this game. And it's not because the Niners aren't a good team. They are. It's just a matchup problem. The Niners have the best MLB in the league, a great tight end, and a premier running back. It won't be enough. The Steelers have better pash rushers at every level, even if Bosa is under contract. They have the best safety in the league, two solid runners, and a deeper receiver group. Diontae will be open out of every break. George or Najee will get the touchdowns. This game won't be close." - Barrett

"This isn't a game the 49ers should win even with Nick Bosa. Playing the Steelers on the road in the season opener. Let's pray the Steelers pass rush don't injure fragile Purdy. Steelers have more talent than the 49ers at every Level! Steelers 27-16! Look at the Steelers roster. I am talking each room. QB Room. RB Room. WR Room. TE Room! Steelers better quality depht at every Level!" - Mr. Fresh

"These Jokers trying to sell that Brock Purdy bs like he is the 2nd coming of Tom Terrific. Steelers defense gonna expose that kid just like the Eagles defense did in the NFC Championship game. Them inspector gadget plays ain't gonna work on the Steelers defense like it did on most of those below average NFC teams last year. These 49ers fans are delusional to think their team is just going to go into Pittsburgh and hand them a Big L in the first game of the season. Get ready for a reality check 9ers fans because it's coming early for you this year." - Hescanti8105

"Steelers are going to spank them, just say it..steelers have a better coach and QB..what 49ers record vs the steelers at home? Steelers defense definitely is better." - Timothy

One guy managed to compliment the 49ers and warn 49ers fans all in one comment. That's impressive. He wrote, "No disrespect to the Niners becuz they are a good team but the Steelers are gonna smack them up.....remember this comment." Oh don't worry, Selaxlife7621, we'll remember your comment.

Look, I respect fans being hyped, especially in week one, and for expecting their team to win. I even respect Steelers fans saying Pittsburgh will beat the 49ers. They might. It's a tough opening game for the 49ers. But saying it won't be close is silly. And saying the Steelers are better in every way is just crazy talk.

The Steelers will have a good season. And some things about this game make me uneasy. Such as:

  • The Steelers are well-coached and usually win in week one.
  • The 49ers usually start slow.
  • The game is in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers have won their last two openers on the Buffalo and Cincinnati. Those are big wins, but this year the Steelers get to open at home.
  • Nick Bosa may not play, and if by some miracle he does, he will likely be on a snap count.
  • George Kittle may not play.

But the 49ers are no slouch, have played in the last two NFC Championship Games, and are more than capable of winning this 2023 opening game. Here are 4 keys to victory for the 49ers in Pittsburgh:

1. Win the turnover battle

I know. This is an obvious key to victory and can be said of every single game that's played. Still, it's even more important on the road, and in big games. I'm not saying a week one game is as big as a game with the season on the line, but week one is always big. It sets the tone for the weeks to come.

On the road, in a loud stadium with great fans, playing against a team that should be much improved this season, makes it that much more important to win the turnover battle. Especially when the home team has a good defense, like Pittsburgh does.

In 2022, the 49ers turned the ball over 17 times, and its defense took the ball away 30 times (+13). The Steelers turned the ball over 19 times in 2022, and their defense had 23 takeaways (+4). In 2019, the 49ers lost the turnover battle (5 turnovers to 2) but still won the game at home 24-20.

Don't expect a repeat of that this year. Whoever wins the turnover battle will win this game.

2. Keep Brock Purdy upright

The Steelers have a talented pass rush, led by superstar T.J. Watt. Colton McKivitz will likely be lined up a lot against Watt. That matchup is a little scary, especially when the guy McKivitz is protecting only had one arm about five months ago. But Watt isn't the only one the 49ers need to be concerned about when it comes to pressure.

Alex Highsmith had 14.5 sacks in 2022, to go along with five forced fumbles. Pro Bowler Cameron Heyward had 10.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Watt only had 5.5 sacks (and one forced fumble), but he only played in 10 games last season. In 2021, Watt had 22.5 sacks. He also accounted for 52 QB pressures. So he's a force to be reckoned with. Add in Highsmith and Heyward, and you have a defensive front that really knows how to get after the QB.

Brock Purdy looks to be fine as he returns from his torn UCL. He looked really good in preseason. And he has a ton of weapons to throw to, like Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, and Kittle. But if he doesn't have time to throw, those weapons won't be much help.

We know that Kyle Shanahan likes to attack aggressive defenses by getting the ball out quickly. But the Steelers know this, as well. So while the 49ers will use this approach a lot, get the ball out quickly before Watt and company can get to Purdy, there will be times the 49ers offensive line will just need to block, and give their QB time to throw.

Far be it from me to give Shanahan any pointers, but maybe stay away from seven-step drops. And maybe don't use a backup tight end to block Watt either. But that could just be my PTSD from the NFC Championship Game talking.

Last season, Pittsburgh sacked the quarterback 40 times, compared to the 49ers' 44 in 2022. I would expect the Steelers to be much better at getting after the QB this season. But for week one, the 49ers offensive line needs to get those pass rushers away from Purdy.

If Pittsburgh can pressure Purdy without blitzing, moving the ball, and protecting the ball, will be a lot more difficult on Sunday for the 49ers.

3. Rattle Kenny Pickett

This isn't anything earth-shattering, but in addition to protecting your quarterback, you want to get after the other team's quarterback. And with Pickett beginning his second season as an NFL QB, it will be even more critical to get pressure on him.

Put early pressure on a young QB, and you can rattle him, forcing him to make some bad decisions. Fail to put pressure on him, let him get into a rhythm, and you'll help build his confidence.

Pickett looked good in the preseason, leading his offense to five touchdowns on five preseason drives. Pickett was 13 for 15 for 199 yards, 2 touchdowns, and zero picks. It was just the preseason, but it's still impressive. You can't do it much better than that.

As a rookie last season, Pickett threw nine interceptions to only seven touchdowns (in 12 starts). He was also sacked 27 times.

The Steelers have a good trio of wide receivers in Diontae Johnson, Allen Robinson, and second-year player George Pickens, as well as a good tight end in Pat Freiermuth. Last season, Johnson had 86 catches for 882 yards, which is impressive considering his team was breaking in a rookie quarterback. Johnson failed to get into the endzone in 2022, but he's still a threat in the passing game.

Robinson had a down year in 2022, playing for the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams were a trainwreck, but Robinson wasn't much better with the Chicago Bears the season before, mainly due to injuries. Still, I wouldn't count out Robinson just yet.

Pickens had only 52 catches a year ago, but those went 801 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 15.4 yards per reception. Freiermuth added 732 yards and two touchdowns on 63 catches last season. So Pickett has some weapons to employ.

And if the 49ers' pass rush is hampered due to the Bosa holdout, that could be an advantage for Pittsburgh.

4. Don't let the Najee Harris go off

Some are worried about the 49ers run defense because they had issues with it in the preseason. Stifling the run is job number one, and the Steelers have a talented running back in Najee Harris. But the 49ers are usually good against the run, so I wouldn't worry about what happened in the preseason. Most of the starters didn't play much in those games.

That said, Harris can be a handful. Last season, Harris rushed for 1034 yards, and scored seven touchdowns. This after rushing for 1200 yards, and seven touchdowns, as a rookie.

But it's what Harris can add in the passing game that makes him such a threat. As a rookie, Harris had 74 receptions for 467 yards. Last year, those numbers dropped considerably, but again, the Steelers were breaking in a rookie QB.

If the 49ers' defense can handle Harris, and make the Steelers' offense one-dimensional, that's a huge benefit for San Francisco. If not, the 49ers could be in for a long day.

In the end, this game will be a defensive battle. Both teams have really good defenses, and if they both show up, it will be a low-scoring game. It very well may come down to whether or not the 49ers can win the turnover battle, keep Purdy upright, rattle Pickett, and keep Harris from going off.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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