To start the year, Pittsburgh draws possibly the toughest challenge it could for their young offense against the San Francisco 49ers defense. It should be a good indicator as to where the team is, although win or lose, it’s going to be a long season.
Here are 3 keys to victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1.
Key #1: Discipline
San Francisco under Kyle Shanahan is one of the most disciplined teams in the league. They are well-coached and creative in their schemes. To start, the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot beat themselves in a game of this magnitude. Although it’s just Week 1, this is a Super Bowl contender playing in the last two NFC Championship games trying to get over the hump and set the tone for their season.
On the other side is a Pittsburgh team trying to establish itself in those conversations and to do so they must play clean football. Limiting penalties and securing the ball is the first step to contending with the contenders.
One of the biggest issues the Steelers struggled with last year was costly, drive-killing, penalties. As the season progressed, the team did slow down on the penalties and it showed in the win column. If Pittsburgh plans on playing in January, the discipline needs to start Week 1.
Key #2: Stop the 49ers run game
San Francisco has a top-five offense and a top-two rushing attack with All-World RB Christian McCaffrey and speedster Elijah Mitchell. Against this team, Pittsburgh must stop the run. If not, it will be a long day for the defense. The 49ers offensive scheme is unique and one of the most difficult to defend as evidenced by the 49ers' success when they roll out the stadium announcer at quarterback and still win games.
It’s a system that runs on time, most of the time. The way to disrupt it is by dominating up front. Do not allow big runs. If the 49ers move the ball at any pace on the ground, Shanahan’s passing game lights up as it works off of play-action plays.
The Steelers will look to their new ILB room, as well as employ the three safety sets they have been working on over the last year but did not previously have the bodies to fill out the scheme. They do now, so look for Minkah, Kazee, Neal, and Riley to be on the field a good bit.
Key #3: Dominate in the trenches
In last year's NFC championship game, although the Niners were down to the water boy playing quarterback, it was the Eagles' defense that did the damage in that contest. They dominated up front and that is exactly how you beat a team such as the 49ers
In what will probably be the most physical game of the opening weekend, the outcome most likely comes down to who dominates up front. Both teams are capable but if there is a weakness on this 49er team, it is the offensive line. Trent Williams is an All-Pro bookend, but the rest of the line is young. These teams are very similar in makeup.
Whichever offensive line holds up better to two of the more imposing fronts the NFL has to offer, most likely walks away with the victory.
Key #4: Limit TE George Kittle (possibly avoided?)
Make no mistake, San Francisco has receivers that can take off the top, running backs that can go the distance any play, but the offense runs through George Kittle.
The Steelers defense cannot allow Kittle to do what he does, which is make teams pay over the course of a game, right down the seam. In the past, this has been a little bit of a headache area for the Steelers. The lack of coverage linebackers has hurt the Steelers on third downs. That has changed as has the overall scheme, once again, most likely seeing 3 safeties on the field to help combat the offensive attack. Kittle is an All-Pro; he knows how to get open.
Kittle is on the injury report, and Pittsburgh may be given a pass on dealing with him if things don’t continue trending in the right direction for Sunday. Still, they’ll need to be prepared.
Minkah will most likely be tasked with keeping Kittle under wraps and if there is a player that can do so, it is he. Kittle will catch passes, but it will be up to the defense to minimize the potential as this team in general can take it to the house on any play.
This is the first Steelers home opener in Week 1 since the 2014 season. Expect the atmosphere to be playoff-like. The fans will be rockin’, which typically means so is the defense. There should be solid play from both of these teams. In a very physical game that will have its fair share of big plays, look for the defenses to take center stage but, in the end, it will be the offense that overcomes that will make the headlines.
Steelers Week 1 Prediction: In a close one, the Steelers defense and Kenny Pickett are up to the task. Steelers win, 20-13. Let’s hear your predictions in the comments!