In each of the last two seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers opened up, on the road, as underdogs and won the games. After each of those matchups in Week 1, every fan hoped that Pittsburgh was a contender. (Spoiler: They were not.)
This season, the Pittsburgh Steelers opened up at home, as underdogs yet again against one of the most complete, if not the most complete, team in all of football. Let’s just say, the Steelers did not shock the world.
Fans' worst fears were coming to fruition. QB Kenny Pickett looked like a rookie. DT Cam Heyward showed his age, leaving mid-game with an injury. The newness of the secondary showed. The offensive line could not slow down the rush. The Steelers once again gave up on the run game. It sounds just like the start of last season, in fact.
But it’s not.
The team met the buzzsaw that is the San Francisco 49ers, no different than the Eagles buzzsaw this same 49ers team ran into in the NFC Championship game. They’d been embarrassed, just as the Steelers were on Sunday — or, “kicked in the teeth,” as Coach Tomlin put it.
This team needed to be kicked in the teeth. It’s a good thing.
Coming out of preseason the Steelers offense had become the talk of the NFL. Looking flawless in preseason, they were ready to take that next step. And they will. This was the first step toward that. This is a team that had only “started” to figure out how to win games towards the end of the season. The team they met, does the routine routinely and has been for a few seasons. Pittsburgh is not there yet.
Kenny Pickett had opportunities to make plays, and he left them on the field. Yes, the rush was relentless, but the offensive line did settle down eventually, giving him an opportunity and he did not take advantage of it.
All off-season, a large portion of the talk was about becoming more explosive. Pickett missed at least five or six throws that would have changed the outcome of the game if he had completed just a couple of them. That’s not to say the Steelers would win, but momentum changes, chunk plays — they take the heart of the opponent. Just as San Francisco did on Sunday. At least they keep you in the game and give your team a chance.
Overall the Pittsburgh defense played fast and will be fine. Take away the long touchdown run by McCaffrey, the Steelers held the 49ers below a 4.0 yards per carry average. Pedestrian, so to speak, but this is one of the best, if not the best, run games in the NFL.
The Pittsburgh defense would hold the Purdy-led offense in check, but when the weighty downs came, Shanahan’s scheme and ingenuity were too much to overcome for this new-look Steelers defense. Make no mistake, the Steelers left a ton of plays on the field defensively, but the 49ers have 5 All-Pro skill position players on the field at any given moment. They will continue to make plays unless there is a combination of elite defensive playmaking and a well-planned scheme to counter the genius of Shanahan. Aiyuk was blanketed on one of his touchdown receptions by CB Patrick Peterson, but he made the play and will continue to be a playmaker for the rest of the season.
In the end, the defense did all it could, but the Steelers offense could not counter. At all. As was frequently discussed this offseason, without at least being able to possess the ball and give the defense rest, you will not win many games. In Week 1, the Steelers possessed the ball for a paltry 22 minutes — barely over a quarter. They abandoned the run game before it ever got a chance as San Francisco loaded the box to start the game and sent the house on third down. Basically, they deployed the same game plan as most teams against the Steelers in the past couple of seasons. But this is the 49ers.
Until Kenny Pickett routinely makes throws when they matter, as he did in preseason, this team is going to struggle. The Steelers looked overwhelmed, unprepared and like they had read too much of their own press and seen too many pre-season highlights. However, this team has accomplished nothing.
There were good moments — great plays. But still, it wasn’t enough.
Patrick Peterson looks like he can still run with the best (even if the best are going to make plays). Elandon Roberts is the real deal at linebacker, but when coverage was exposed, it looked like Cole Holcomb may not be the answer. Kwon Alexander was all over the field but struggled a little in the run game.
The secondary played simply okay facing what is most likely one of the toughest schemes to defend in football. With RT Chucks Okorafor going down, rookie LT Broderick Jones saw some action. As did TE Darnell Washington, as he pancaked All-World Nick Bosa on a series. Pickett hung in the pocket in the face of the No. 1 defense, which is commendable, but without the accuracy, it’s pointless, throwing it out of bounds now and again. He’s still learning. This entire team is.
The players are in place as is the talent but this team needs to learn to play like a team this year as this is a new season and everything done prior, well, means nothing.
This wake-up call, rather than feeling great about yourself after a win as an underdog is exactly what this Pittsburgh team needed. They needed to be reminded that even though the right pieces are in place, you still have to play the game. You have to make routine plays routinely. You must respond — exactly as was seen on the other side of the field.
Most would agree that the 49ers are “the standard” of the NFL. Yes, a couple of other squads join them, but they are the elite of the elite. Pittsburgh is not there yet but maybe just learned a valuable lesson to start the season.
It’s a long season. The Steelers have time to turn it around, and it seems likely we’ll see a different squad and a different sense of urgency against the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football in Week 2 — which already feels like a “must-win” in many ways.