Well, that didn’t go as planned. The Steelers lost to the San Francisco 49ers in blowout fashion on Sunday, disappointing a home crowd with a 23-point defeat. Although it’s best to move on from this game as soon as possible, there are still takeaways to be had.
1. Crash back to reality
The Steelers had a near-perfect preseason, with all three phases of the game looking dominant. The hype train had left the station, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was fully onboard. I didn't ascend to Stillers gahnta the Super Bowl levels of Yinzerdom, but I did foolishly pick them to beat the 49ers, or at least keep it close.
But despite the preseason hype, Pittsburgh managed to look the same, if not even worse, than they’ve looked at their low points over the past few seasons. All the usual culprits were there: a Stone Age offense with no time of possession to speak of, a defense with gaping holes in its zone coverage, and some special teams miscues to put a cherry atop the incompetence sundae. Add in zero splash plays by the inside linebackers, nonexistent run defense, and everything else on your Steelers-of-old bingo card. Pittsburgh didn’t just look rusty — they looked bottom-of-the-league bad against San Francisco.
The team’s preseason success just adds insult to injury, as not even the most pessimistic Steelers fan predicted a beatdown of this caliber on Sunday. If there’s one positive takeaway, it could be argued that a massive slice of humble pie is exactly what this Steelers roster needs to recover from their hero-to-zero act from the preseason to Week 1.
2. Not the best idea
Speaking of humble pie, veteran corner Patrick Peterson called his shot before the 49ers game, claiming he would read San Francisco’s “tells” on offense and record an interception on Sunday. Just about the opposite happened, with 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy having no problem targeting Peterson, throwing two touchdowns against the latter. Look, I’m all for confidence and even some pregame trash talk, but it’s hard to deny that this was a bad look for a veteran role model on Pittsburgh’s defense. Peterson didn’t have the worst game, still recording two passes defensed, but it wasn’t enough to back up his antics, instead worsening the Steelers’ humiliating loss.
3. Benchwarmers no longer
The Steelers’ secondary still managed to stand out negatively despite a myriad of issues on the defense. Brandon Aiyuk and Brock Purdy ate the Steelers’ coverage alive, connecting eight times on just as many targets for 129 yards and the aforementioned 2 touchdowns. And it probably would’ve been worse if Christian McCaffrey hadn’t been so effective on the ground. The Steelers’ aging cornerback room and Damontae Kazee/Keanu Neal replacement for Terrell Edmunds were woefully outmatched on Sunday, but at least some in-house options could provide help.
Promising second-round pick Joey Porter Jr. saw only seven snaps on Sunday per ESPN’s Brooke Pryor, while recent free agent addition and former All-Pro Desmond King was inactive to start the season. This isn’t necessarily a critique of the Steelers’ personnel decisions, as Porter is a rookie and King has been a Steeler for less than two weeks, but it’s clear that the Steelers need some help in the secondary and those two have a lot of upside in what they could bring to the defense. If one or both pan out, it would give the Pittsburgh secondary a much-needed boost and allow the versatile Patrick Peterson to rotate and provide help in other spots on the defense such as safety or the slot.
Similarly, veteran Montravius Adams got the start at nose tackle, but rookie Keeanu Benton certainly outshined him when he got snaps in the interior of Pittsburgh’s defense. And if the offensive tackle play continues to be as poor as it was on Sunday, the Steelers absolutely need to see what first-rounder Broderick Jones can offer as a replacement. If Mike Tomlin lets his rookie class see some more snaps over underperforming veterans as the season progresses, it may prove that some of the needed fixes on the Steelers’ roster were on the team the entire time. Here’s to hoping it’s that simple.
4. Putting the “pick” in Pickett
At the center of the Steelers’ preseason hype was second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett, who looked sharp, confident, and efficient in Pittsburgh’s three exhibition matches to open the season.
He was the antithesis of that against the 49ers.
While some blame can be put on offensive coordinator Matt Canada and the Steelers’ struggling offensive line — and some should — it’s undeniable that Kenny Pickett was the crux of Pittsburgh’s offensive woes on Sunday. He looked flustered early and often, making awful reads and looking nothing like the franchise quarterback fans hoped he was prior to Week 1. Pickett threw two interceptions and should’ve had a third, playing what I’d argue to be his worst game as a pro. If he continues to look like he did against San Francisco, the Steelers are in a world of trouble this season and beyond.
5. Death, taxes, and TJ Watt
If one thing did go as planned on Sunday, it was T.J. Watt’s performance. The Steelers’ star pass-rusher recorded 3.0 sacks and two forced fumbles in the season opener, tying the Steelers’ all-time sack record with 80.5 of them in his career. Watt will undoubtedly break that record for good sometime in the next few weeks en route to what should be another special season if he can stay healthy. It’s just unfortunate that he was the only member of the Steelers defense who showed up on Sunday. If there’s some good news, it’s refreshing that the most important member of Pittsburgh’s defense is still performing as advertised, even if everything around him still needs some work.
6. Way-too-early draft needs
The Steelers are only one bad loss into the season, so I promise I won’t start up the BTSC draft discourse this early... but I’ll make one exception to talk about how seriously the Steelers need to be looking at interior defensive line prospects as they scout college players this fall. The Pittsburgh defensive line was powerless against the 49ers run game on Sunday, and they provided hardly any pressure against the pass. When Cam Heyward left the game with injury it went from bad to abysmal, and Larry Ogunjobi, who’s dealing with injury yet again, didn’t provide much of a positive presence, either. The Steelers desperately need a youth and talent infusion on their defensive line.
7. Terrible telecast
I’ll admit I was already irritated by how the game was going, but the commentary on my Fox broadcast somehow made it worse. Mike Tomlin was oddly criticized for not playing his starters enough in the preseason, while if anything, he had faced criticism earlier for playing them too much. The play-by-play kept getting the Steelers’ receivers’ names mixed up, while the analyst recommended that Pittsburgh take a field goal to end the first half instead of going for a touchdown, keeping a three-score game as a three-score game. Plenty of other comments got under my skin as well, but I’ll leave them be despite having the opportunity to air my grievances in an “overreactions” column. Again, it’s probably best to just move on from this game.
8. It gets better... maybe?
The 49ers dominated the Steelers. No question. But if there’s one silver lining, it’s that there’s a strong argument that San Francisco will be the best team the Steelers play all year, meaning that it can only get better from here. But the Steelers don’t exactly have an easy Week 2 matchup: the Cleveland Browns destroyed a very good Bengals team on Sunday with a score of 24-3, meaning that the upcoming Browns/Steelers matchup will be anything but the cakewalk fans hoped it would be. And let’s be honest, the Steelers haven’t proven that they can beat anyone in the NFL after their Week 1 showing. Let’s hope they’re on their A-game entering a big divisional rivalry next Monday.
9. It’s only Week 1
Don’t overreact! Yes, I know I’m the 10 Overreactions guy saying it, but someone has to. Week 1 is always a weird time in the NFL, and it’s never guaranteed to be indicative of how teams will end their season. A lot will still change between now and the playoffs, and I can think of plenty of Mike Tomlin teams that had dismal starts to the year before pulling together something that looks like a contender before the end of the season. As annoying as it can be to say, Tomlin still doesn’t have a losing season as the Steelers’ head coach. Yes, Sunday’s game was brutal, but let’s not close the book on the 2023 Steelers after one awful showing. Pittsburgh is 0-1 with 16 games still on the schedule.
10. Odds and ends
- I didn’t end up mentioning the Steelers’ offensive line and run game much as everything was starting to sound one-note with [position group here] disappointing, but it’s worth bringing up here at the end. Nearly everything on the Steelers’ offense needs some work.
- Diontae Johnson actually looked solid against the 49ers, minus what looked like a drop on a ball that was slightly behind him in the red zone. Hopefully, his hamstring injury isn’t serious and he can break his touchdown-less streak sometime early this season.
- Allen Robinson was surprisingly the Steelers’ leading receiver with 64 yards on 5 catches. I’d like to spin this into a positive and say that he could be a sneaky-good weapon on the Pittsburgh offense this year, but I’m afraid that his team-leading 64 yards just shows how ineffective the Steeler passing game was on Sunday.
- Besides TJ Watt, Anthony McFarland was the other bright spot on a dark day for the Steelers. I’ve been wanting to see him provide a spark on special teams and he certainly did, averaging just over 30 yards a kickoff return. He showed some speed receiving out of the backfield as well before being nearly beheaded by 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw.
- If the Steelers offense can increase their time of possession this season, the Steelers defense should show some improvement. At least, I hope.
- Pittsburgh certainly had no issues rotating their pass-rushers, with Nick Herbig and Markus Golden getting plenty of snaps to spell TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith. Still, it’s clear that Watt is a head and shoulders above everyone else in that talented rotation.
- Rookie tight end Darnell Washington’s one-on-one pancake block of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa was perhaps the Steelers’ best offensive highlight of the game. Good for the rookie and hopefully he can continue to be an asset for the Pittsburgh offense going forward.
- The Steelers weren’t afraid to turn to Calvin Austin early in their gameplan. It didn’t result in much but it’s clear that the young speedster will have a decent-sized role in the Steeler offense this season.
- The footing at Acrisure Stadium, which looked like both a field and cleats issue, certainly cost the Steelers some plays on Sunday. Obviously, it was just a drop in the bucket in terms of things that cost Pittsburgh the game, but controllable aspects like that should not even be part of that equation.
- Hey, at least the Steelers aren’t the Giants!
It was good to see the Steelers back on TV, but the final product didn’t even come close to expectations. On to the Browns.
What are your overreactions and takeaways from Steelers vs. 49ers? Agree/disagree with the ones above? Join our Behind The Steel Curtain community and let us know in the comments!