Game Overview ::
By Mike Johnson >>
- The 49ers offense enters the season fully healthy and looks to pick up where they left off torching scoreboards to end 2022.
- Pittsburgh has invested a lot of draft capital into their offense in recent years and is looking to cash in on that investment this season.
- The 49ers defense is likely to once again be one of the top units in the league, while the Steelers defense should also provide a formidable challenge for opponents.
- Both teams feature second year quarterbacks whose main objective is to distribute the ball to their plethora of high quality skill players.
- The excitement around the big names on offense could be quickly spoiled by distinct advantages both defenses have at the line of scrimmage.
HOW SAN FRANCISCO WILL TRY TO WIN ::
The 49ers under Kyle Shanahan have built their team in a very specific way and that vision came full circle at the end of last season when Brock Purdy took over at QB and the 49ers led the NFL in scoring for the remainder of the year, scoring 30+ points in six of eight games before Purdy’s elbow injury in the conference championship game. The 49ers were tied for the slowest tempo in 2022 at 31 seconds per snap while also ranking 29th in the league in pass rate. The 49ers make up for their methodical offensive approach through elite efficiency and big play ability thanks to a meticulously designed offense and a murderer’s row of skill players. In the same way many of us have a “type” we are looking for in the dating realm, the 49ers have a “type” and they have loaded up on them – players who can make incredible things happen with the ball in their hands. Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle keep defenses honest and Kyle Shanahan’s creativity in personnel packages, formations, and play design puts all of them in a position to make plays.
Looking to 2023, we shouldn’t expect much change for this well-oiled machine. They really have no reason to alter their tempo or approach. They mix up their play calls, use misdirection, and find ways to stress the defense both vertically and horizontally – forcing their opponent to defend every part of the field. The biggest obstacle facing them in their Week 1 matchup with the Steelers is the fact that Pittsburgh notoriously has a very good run defense (ranking top-5 by most metrics in 2022) and projects to be similarly strong this year. Likewise, the Pittsburgh pass rush is very strong and if this San Francisco offense has an Achilles heel this year it is likely going to be their offensive line. The obvious counter to that, however, is that the 49ers passing game is designed to get the ball out quickly to the playmakers and that approach can often neutralize an opposing pass rush. I would think that given Purdy’s injury to end last season, the 49ers will make a concerted effort to give him adequate protection and get the ball out quickly.
This offense-defense matchup is, in my opinion, perhaps the most interesting X’s and O’s matchup of the opening week. Two seasons ago, the Steelers beat the Bills and Josh Allen in Week 1 by altering their approach and dropping a lot of players back into zone coverage, therefore flooding the secondary with defenders and allowing them to contain Allen’s rushing lanes. I wonder if Pittsburgh could employ a similar strategy in this matchup as a way to contain the 49ers elite run-after-catch weapons. The Steelers know that Brock Purdy is not an elite scrambling quarterback so if they throw off his timing by dropping defenders into coverage they may be able to completely knock the 49ers out of rhythm. The Steelers ranked 6th in the NFL in blitz percentage in 2022 so an approach like this would be slightly out of character for them, but it would make a ton of sense given the opponent and length of preparation time. The danger the Steelers would have if they are blitz-happy is they leave themselves vulnerable to one broken tackle leading to massive chunks of yards and explosive plays for the 49ers offense. It will be a really interesting chess match to watch and I’ll be glued to this one.