We continue to inch closer to Week 1 where the Steelers will start their season by hosting the San Francisco 49ers. To get some insight from the other side, Ryan Bainbridge of Niners Nation answered five burning questions as we head into Week 1.
1. Do you think Nick Bosa will be on a pitch count?
All signs point to the answer being “no”. When Shanahan was asked about limiting Bosa’s reps, he jokingly asked “how many snaps are in the game”. He also stated that it was not in Bosa’s DNA to come in out of shape. Despite not being with the team all off-season, the expectation is that Bosa has still been training at a high-level and conditioning won’t be an issue. Even with new defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks, at the helm the scheme is relatively the same. Shanahan mentioned that Bosa’s a smart player and despite not wanting to answer too much in his initial press conference following the new contract, Shanahan referenced Bosa’s accountability: “But we’ve gotten to know Nick pretty well and kind of expect when he gets here to look and act and be in the same spot he’s been since the day we met him.” The reigning defensive player of the year was on the field for just under 70% of the team’s defensive snaps last season, but that includes two blowouts of Arizona and Carolina that the 49ers pulled their starters. It’s reasonable to expect he will play 75%-85% of snaps in this game.
2. What’s Brock Purdy going to look like post-elbow surgery?
Purdy’s training camp included a pitch count to ease the second-year pro back into action. Following the 49ers first preseason game, on August 14th Purdy’s practice restrictions were lifted and he saw his first live football snaps since the January 29th injury. Their second preseason game on August 9th Purdy threw five passes and had an eight yard scamper in limited action with the rest of the starters. He played again in their final preseason game against the Chargers on August 25th, throwing nine passes and adding a rushing TD in two drives against LA’s defensive backups. Everything indicates Purdy is fully healed and his arm strength should be nearly identical to what we saw during the 2022 season.
3. Who is the biggest X-factor offensively for the 49ers?
San Francisco has so many playmakers that create matchup nightmares for defensives across the league. It would be easy to pick George Kittle or Christian McCaffrey to have big receiving days when matched up in coverage against the Steelers new starting linebackers. However, the most important player to watch is right tackle Colton McKivitz. The former 2020 fifth-round pick will be the new starter following the departure of Mike McGlinchey in free agency. McKivitz saw a decent amount of action as a rookie, starting three games and playing over 300 snaps. But the past two seasons he’s barely taken the field with the first string offense, having just 70 snaps in 2021 and 68 snaps in 2022. We will see right away if he is going to be an asset or a liability by the challenge presented this weekend in the form of Pittsburgh’s daunting pass rush unit of TJ Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Cam Heyward.
4. What Steelers player worries you the most?
[T.J.] Watt. It is the obvious choice, but no one has more sacks than Watt since entering the league in 2017 (77.5 in 87 games played). Despite a down year that was plagued by injury, Watt is still one of the top three or four pass rushers in the NFL and can give opposing offensive linemen trouble. If he is lined up over McKivitz for most of the game, there will be some growing pains right away for San Francisco’s offense.
5. Do you expect the Steelers to cover the 2.5-point spread?
Betting on week 1 NFL games is a huge gamble. Last season the Steelers upset the Bengals and the Bears upset the 49ers in week 1, so anything can happen. Last night the Lions beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead. With that being said, I think the 49ers win and cover. Pittsburgh’s offense is getting a lot of hype from an excellent preseason showing but they have to face the best defense in the league right away. Kenny Pickett has actually played well under pressure but I expect it to be ramped up as the San Francisco’s pass rush is significantly better than the Pittsburgh offensive line, perhaps resulting in some errant throws or turnover worthy plays. If the game was in San Francisco, I would feel more confident. But traveling east is never easy and neither is winning at Heinz Field (Acrisure Stadium, but it will always be Heinz).