The Steelers are making final preparations to begin the 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium on September 10th at 1 p.m. ET. It’s time we take a look back at this series, what’s new with the 49ers, and other connections between these two historical NFL dynasties.
Steelers vs. 49ers matchup history
While the Steelers have represented the AFC in eight Super Bowls and the 49ers have represented the NFC in seven, they have never met in the big game. Since the NFL’s division realignment in 2002, the Steelers and 49ers meet every four years. Over that span, the home team has won all five contests. Unlike games against division opponents that are often close due to familiarity, a series with infrequent matchups can tend to have blowouts. That is the case here, as four of these past five games have been won by at least 16 points.
The 49ers hold an all-time 12-10 series edge over the Steelers.
Their latest matchup
The most recent meeting, in 2019, was the first career start for QB Mason Rudolph. Rudolph would go 14-of-27 for 174 yards and a pair of long TDs. JuJu Smith-Schuster would race 76 yards to paydirt in the third quarter and Dionte Johnson would streak down the sideline in the fourth to haul in a 39-yarder as the lead changed hands five times in the second half. Unfortunately, San Francisco would score the game-winning TD with just over a minute left in their 24-20 victory.
The most historic game in this series happened in 1984. This was the first year after the retirement of Terry Bradshaw, and Mark Malone would face off against Joe Montana that day. The Steelers kept Montana on the bench most of the game as they controlled time of possession by pounding the running game 47 times compared to only 19 pass plays. Click here for highlights if your life has been lacking in the Walter Abercrombie, Rich Erenberg, and Weegie Thompson departments.
John Stallworth would catch a fourth-quarter game-tying touchdown and after Bryan Hinkle picked off a Montana pass, Gary Anderson added a field goal for the win. The 20-17 loss to the Steelers would be the only thing to keep the San Francisco 49ers from being undefeated Super Bowl champions. A Steeler loss to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship prevented a rematch. The 49ers would go on to defeat the Dan Marino Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX.
49ers changes for 2023
San Francisco played in the NFC Championship last year but fell one win shy of going to the Super Bowl. As such, perhaps not many changes were needed. Offensively they ranked fifth in total yards, sixth in points scored, seventh in rushing yards and 13th in passing yards.
QB Brock Purdy returns as the starter after the 49ers finally were successful in moving on from Jimmy Garoppolo. After trading a second-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017, they would use three 1st-rounders and a 2nd to draft Trey Lance as his replacement in 2021. Now they have moved on from both in favor of 2022’s “Mr. Irrelevant”. The annual title earned as the last pick of the draft was bestowed upon Purdy. He then went on to win all eight of the games he played before suffering an elbow injury in the NFC Championship.
Somehow, San Francisco is still considered to have one of the best front offices in football after wasting all that draft capital on now-former-quarterbacks.
Those moves combined with trading 2023 second, third, and fourth-round picks plus a 2024 fifth for running back Christian McCaffrey leave San Francisco without many rookies to speak of. Purdy is one of 10 returning starters for the 49ers offense. The only change was losing RT Mike McGlinchey in free agency. He is replaced by three-year backup Colton McKivitz who has only 5 career starts on his stat sheet.
Defensively, San Francisco ranked second in the league in points, rushing yards, and total yards allowed. Passing yards was another story — try No. 21 on for size. This would explain them moving on from CB Emmanuel Moseley and S Jimmie Ward, even though both were rated highly by Pro Football Focus. Changes were needed on the back end.
Former Steelers DT Javon Hargrave was the big acquisition in free agency. His rare pass-rushing abilities for a DT could help pressure the QB so the revamped secondary doesn’t need to cover very long. Adding that talent to three All-Pros (DE Nick Bosa, LB Fred Warner, S Talanoa Hufanga) should keep the defense near the top of the statistical rankings again this year, provided Bosa’s contract holdout doesn’t linger into the regular season.
Family ties: Steelers-49ers connections
Throughout history, there’s an odd frequency of short-term 49ers who had earlier played significantly for the Steelers. Current 49ers DT Javon Hargrave, KR/WR Ray-Ray McCloud, and K Matthew Wright are not the only players to wear both uniforms. Recent Steelers CB Ahkello Witherspoon and TE Vance McDonald came to Pittsburgh from the 49ers.
Former Steelers CB Rod Woodson, LB Kevin Greene, WR Emmanuel Sanders, and DB Tony Dungy all played one year or less for San Francisco along with kickers Matt Bahr, Gary Anderson, and Jeff Reed.
Bonus almost-family nugget: The Steelers drafted rookies TE Darnell Washington and OLB Nick Herbig with pick Nos. 93 & 132. Those picks originally belonged to San Francisco but were part of the trade to Carolina for McCaffrey. The Steelers then traded pick No.80 to Carolina for Nos. 93 & 132. Whenever Washington catches a touchdown and Herbig notches a sack be sure to thank GM John Lynch and those generous 49ers.
So there you have it Steeler fans: a little bit of history, a little bit of what’s new, and a little bit of family to get you juiced for Sunday’s game.
Here we go!