First things first, if you are expecting a breakdown of the run-stuffing technique of a Buck LB filling the B-gap against 11 personnel configured in a bunch formation after pre-snap motion from a 2x2 set, this analysis may be lacking for you. Those are some terms that get thrown about by analysts who either (A) are smart or (B) want to sound smart. I am neither. I am a fan who took time to learn about our opponent and then watched their past few games to make some notes that hopefully everyone can understand without having to consult a football dictionary. Here’s how I see it.
What’s new with the 49ers offense?
Unless you’re one of those fans who turn off the TV when the Steelers aren’t playing, you probably learned about Brock Purdy, a.k.a. Mr. Irrelevant. Even though he was the final pick in the draft last year, he became the starting quarterback for the Niners due to the injuries of Trey Lance and then Jimmy Garoppolo. After taking over, Purdy would win all eight of his games until an elbow injury knocked him out of the NFC Championship. The injury would require surgery, but Purdy is back under center to start 2023 and All-Pro LT Trent Williams will be protecting his blind side again as one of four returning offensive linemen.
Scouting 49ers QB Brock Purdy
With the caveat that the film on Purdy is only eight games and the acknowledgment that the offense called by the 49ers for their rookie quarterback was likely limited, here are some insights.
- Purdy displayed great accuracy in distributing the ball to the Niners playmakers. While accuracy and quick release are Purdy’s plusses, his shortcomings are his arm strength, height, and delivery angle.
- Passes over 15 yards downfield seemed to hang a bit, causing receivers to slow their stride and/or allowing safeties to close in on the play.
- While listed at 6’1 he appears to play shorter as he drops to a sidearm delivery when working around pass rushers and blockers in front of him which leads to some pass deflections at the line of scrimmage.
- Not overly mobile, Purdy can still take advantage of his legs when the defense gives him a lane. On roll-outs and bootlegs, he doesn’t square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage well which limits his velocity and his ability to use the entire field.
49ers style on offense
When San Francisco lines the quarterback up under-center they love to use play-action passing that sucks up the linebackers toward the line of scrimmage. They’ll have the defense thinking it’s a running play, and then throw to in-breaking routes (slants and crossers, primarily to WRs Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel) in the void created behind those sucked-up linebackers.
Shotgun formation plays with RB Christian McCaffrey next to Purdy are very often a handoff run between the tackles. They like to run out of typical pass formations and pass out of typical run formations. TE George Kittle is still significant both in the passing game and as a blocker, and his dual talents allow for the offense to be extremely effective in run and pass without changing personnel. Out-breaking routes and deep shots down the sideline are extremely rare. This offense does the overwhelming majority of its damage over the middle.
While the 49ers' offensive prowess over the middle may make you worry about how effective the Steeler inside linebackers and strong safeties are in coverage, the lack of deep throws and sideline throws should allow help from the deep secondary. Ballhawk safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee have each led the NFL in interceptions ( and 2018, respectively) and could make a splash play or two. With so much of the passing game playing out right in front of them, they should be able to take chances while very rarely needing to worry about anything going deep over their heads.
Disrupting the timing of passing routes at the line of scrimmage and proper depth of linebackers in coverage will be keys to success for the Steelers. After faking a handoff on play-action, Purdy has very little time to get his eyes on the defense to read where to throw. If the WRs have been slowed by a jam at the line and aren’t where he expects them to be, it disrupts the entire offense. If LBs can get deeper after those run fakes, it shrinks the spaces that Purdy will be targeting.
Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt are both excellent at tipping passes and Purdy will give them opportunities to do so. Speaking of opportunities for Watt, long-time 49ers OT Mike McGlinchey left in free agency and will be replaced by Colton McKivitz who has spent his only three NFL seasons on the Niners bench, making just five starts in spot duty. If Watt needs any extra incentive, in the final game of a Hall of Fame career his big brother J.J. racked up two sacks of Brock Purdy.
Changes for San Francisco’s defense and
Boasting three All-Pros in 2022, San Francisco’s defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL. Headlining that unit is All-Pro defensive end Nick Bosa, a game wrecker similar to T.J. Watt. Bosa had been in a contract dispute and missed all of the 49ers training camp and preseason games. After signing a new deal Wednesday, his conditioning and game speed may not be up to his usual performance this Sunday. The 49ers also lost a pair of edge rushers to free agency, so there could be a glaring drop-off in pass rushing should Bosa struggle out of the gate.
Former Steeler DT Jovan Hargrave signed a big money deal with the Niners this offseason after registering a career-high 11 sacks with the Eagles last year. His aggressiveness to rush the passer can sometimes allow him to be turned and create holes for the run game. Newly acquired Steelers left guard Isaac Seumalo played the last three seasons in Philadelphia with Hargrave, and he may bring some inside info to help take advantage of the chinks in Hargrave’s armor.
San Francisco’s linebacking core is anchored by All-Pro Fred Warner who is seen all over the field making plays, be it against the run or the pass. While All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga is still on patrol, the secondary will have to replace two starters lost to free agency in CB Emanuel Moseley and S Jimmy Ward. If the QB pressure is lacking up front it could be a big day for the Steelers passing attack. For all the talent of the All-Pros, this was a defense that got absolutely carved up for 34 points by the Raiders’ Jarrett Stidham (23-of-34 for 365 yards, 3 TDs, and 2 INTs) in his first career start back in January, just one week after the Steelers held Las Vegas to 10 points and Derek Carr to 16-of-30 for 174 yards and 1 TD/3 INT.
49ers special teams
A pair of former Steelers are important to the special teams this week. Kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud could miss the game with a wrist injury suffered in preseason. McCloud was very good, ranking No.3 in punt return average and No. 9 in kick return average last year.
Kicker Matthew Wright was signed this week as the Niners are dealing with injuries to two kickers already. While Wright went 12-of-14 on FG attempts for the Steelers filling in last year for the injured Chris Boswell, he was only 5-of-7 at Acrisure Stadium. His longest successful field goal there was 42 yards while he missed a 39-yarder and a 48-yarder. If Wright has to play on Sunday, it certainly could affect the play calling for the 49ers’ offense when they approach long field goal range.
Don’t be afraid of these 49ers
Even though the San Francisco 49ers played in the NFC Championship last year, there are a lot of questions to be answered on the Acrisure Stadium field at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Other than the addition of Hargrave, they are pretty much the same team as they were in 2022 minus one solid offensive tackle and with a quarterback coming off an elbow surgery that could limit. Yes, that team did have a 13-4 regular season, but did you know they only played five games against teams that ended the season with a winning record? They only played two against teams that won 10 or more games. The Steelers played six against teams that won 10+ games last year.
On the other side of things, many have discounted the Steelers’ 7-2 mark after the bye due to the “bad” teams on the schedule. Did you know that San Francisco got four of their wins against the worst six teams in 2022? Those wins came in six games against teams that couldn’t win more than five all season. That’s right, four wins in six games! They lost two games against the bottom feeders (Chicago and Denver).
The Steelers got to play exactly zero of the bottom six. Imagine if the Steelers could’ve played the Arizona Cardinals twice instead of Cincinnati. Then throw in the Bears and Broncos instead of Buffalo and Philadelphia. You know, maybe we would’ve won our division too if our schedule had been that easy. Do not be intimidated by their record built on that flimsy schedule. Both the Steelers and 49ers enter this matchup 0-0. All that matters is what transpires over 60 minutes on Sunday afternoon.
Here We Go!