PITTSBURGH — Coach Mike Tomlin didn’t mince words in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 30-7 dismantling at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.
“You can’t start games 0-5 on third down and think that you’re going to have the type of day that you desire,” Tomlin said. “You got to win the weighty downs, and it’s just more than just identifying that component, man. It was a failure on our part, in all areas. We got to coach better, we got to play better.
As an offense, the Steelers (0-1) converted on just 5 of 15 third downs, while the 49ers (1-0) converted on 6 of 13. The Steelers didn’t even pick up a first down until less than two minutes remained in the first half. The Steelers lost the time of possession battle 37:23 to 22:37, and the lack of plays especially in the first half kept the offense from establishing any sort or rhythm or ground game.
Christian McCaffery ran for 151 yards and caught three passes for 17 more for the 49ers (1-0), who looked every bit the dominant force they were down the stretch last season when Purdy took over at quarterback.
Bosa, a handful of days removed from signing the richest contract ever awarded to a defensive player, had two tackles and a quarterback hit. The 49ers didn’t need the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year to wreak his unique brand of havoc to keep the Steelers and second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett in check.
San Francisco had five sacks — three of them by second-year defensive lineman Drake Jackson — and intercepted Pickett twice to dim the budding optimism in Pittsburgh after he led the first-team offense to five touchdowns in as many drives during in three exhibition appearances.
“Throughout the preseason, they were hot, you know,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said. “I’m sure they had a lot of confidence coming in and we just came out and executed.”
Pittsburgh either punted or turned the ball over in each of its first five possessions as the 49ers quickly built a 20-0 lead.
While Purdy cruised, Pickett stumbled. He completed 31 of 46 passes for 232 yards, the vast majority of the yardage coming with the Steelers hopelessly behind.
Then again, Pickett was hardly alone. The Steelers didn’t get their initial first down until Najee Harris ran for 24 yards with less than two minutes to go in the opening half. That drive ended with Pickett throwing a 3-yard dart to Pat Freiermuth for a touchdown that briefly cut the deficit to 20-7.
All the goodwill and optimism provided by a perfect preseason vanished for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the harsh reality of their regular-season opener.
Kenny Pickett and the Steelers offense, which had stoked expectations after scoring on each of their preseason drives, were rag-dolled in a Week 1 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers, 30-7 — the most lopsided home defeat in the Mike Tomlin era.
While the 49ers emerged looking every bit like an NFC Super Bowl contender, the Steelers limped away from Acrisure Stadium looking like preseason pretenders.
“We accept responsibility obviously for the outcome,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said after the game, via the team website. “We compliment those guys on the quality of work that they did. We absorb the negativity that comes with how we performed today, and we go back to work. We’ve got to prepare them better. They’ve got to play better. That’s just the reality of it.
The receivers that ran freely in August found themselves blanketed. The ocean of time quarterback Kenny Pickett had to throw during training camp was reduced to a mere puddle. That is, if it existed at all on a day Pickett was sacked five times and pressured countless others.
The result was a sobering three-hour reality check.
“I think San Fran’s defense is a little bit better than some teams in the preseason we played,” Pickett said. “They’re a good team. But at the end of the day, we didn’t secure anywhere near at the level that we need to or want to. Have to get a lot better.”
There’s plenty to work on. Pickett completed 31 of 46 passes for 232 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. His accuracy was scattershot at best. He threaded a 3-yard touchdown to Pat Freiermuth that momentarily gave the Steelers momentum near the end of the first half. He also sailed a pair of passes that ended up in the hands of defenders with a white “SF” on their helmets.
Perhaps most troubling was the absolute inability to generate anything at all when the game was still up for grabs. The Steelers either punted or turned the ball over on each of their first five possessions, failing to secure a single first down in the process while the 49ers built a 20-point lead.
“As an offense, in training camp and preseason we’ve been playing so well, and then we go out there and we don’t play well,” center Mason Cole said. “It’s a little disappointing but there’s nobody to blame but ourselves.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around. While outside linebacker T.J. Watt looked as good as ever while getting three sacks to tie James Harrison’s franchise record of 80 1/2, the Steelers also let San Francisco star Christian McCaffrey rack up 152 yards rushing, 65 of them coming on a sprint down the sideline on the second play of the second half that effectively put the game out of reach.
The 49ers held the ball for more than 37 minutes, outgained the Steelers 391-239 and seemed to do whatever it wanted whenever it wanted against the NFL’s highest-paid defense.
“You guys watched the preseason, we were able to start fast in all three phases of the game, and today was definitely not like that,” Watt said.
Pittsburgh lost defensive tackle Cam Heyward to a groin injury in the early going and defensive end DeMarvin Leal to an elbow injury not long after. Their absence disrupted the carefully laid rotation the coaching staff had laid out to keep players fresh.
Instead, the Steelers wore down at times. San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy was an efficient 19 of 29, throwing for a pair of touchdowns to Brandon Aiyuk with veteran defensive back Patrick Peterson in coverage. Peterson predicted he’d get at least one interception against Purdy. While he did knock down a pair of passes, he also couldn’t stop Aiyuk from landing in the end zone with the ball in his hands.
“We can’t hit the panic button just yet, it’s Week 1,” Peterson said. “We know the things we have to clean up on the defensive side of the ball and hopefully we will be better next outing.”
The Steelers are banking on Pickett making a leap forward following a solid finish to his rookie season last winter. It certainly looked as if he was ready during the preseason when he led the first-team offense to five touchdowns in as many drives when he was on the field.
Pickett stressed he felt “comfortable” even while facing one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. Maybe, but he didn’t look comfortable while missing passes that he completed with relative ease over the summer.
Summer’s over. Now, things count. And the 49ers laid the blueprint for every team the Steelers will face for the next four-plus months. Get out in front early. Stop the run. And dare Pickett to beat you with his arm.
It’s early, yes. And the Steelers somehow scrambled out of a 2-6 start a season ago to finish 9-8 and flirt with making the playoffs.
Merely flirting with the postseason won’t be enough in 2023. There’s a long way to go. But a team that thought it was well ahead of where it was a year ago instead looked ordinary at best. That needs to change quickly or Pittsburgh might find itself in a hole that could be difficult to climb out of in what is expected to be the toughest division in the league.
With expectations soaring after what most considered a good offseason and then a perfect 3-0 preseason, the Steelers opened the season with what figured to be a big test against the San Francisco 49ers, a team that had played in the past two NFC Championship games.
Aiyuk caught eight passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns and also threw a key block on a McCaffery touchdown, while McCaffery rushed for 151 yards as the 49ers defeated the Steelers, 30-7, here at Acrisure Stadium to open the season.
“Disappointing day for us,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “Not how we wanted to perform. While at the same time, you’ve got to compliment those guys because it unfolded in a manner in which they desired for it to. Oftentimes in games like this, the teams that win are, the game unfolds more to their personality than the opponent. No question, the game unfolded in the manner in … the style of play that they like to play.”