By Ray Porter, Jr.
PITTSBURGH, PA–For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2023 season meant a fresh start with new players, rookies, and more depth. After a 3-0 Preseason, there was hope that the ‘success’ would continue into the regular season as they welcomed the San Francisco 49ers into Acrisure Stadium for their first game of the season. Their goal was to show one of the NFC’s best teams that they mean business.
Unfortunately, it was the 49ers who showed the Steelers why they are one of the NFC’s best teams as they manhandled the Steelers 30-7 in front of 67,679 fans that also included 49er fans.
“Disappointing day for us. 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 it to,” said Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, who saw his Steelers begin the season at 0-1.
The 49ers dominated from start to finish as they stormed to a 7-0 lead on an 8-yard TD pass from QB B. Purdy to WR Brandon Aiyuk for 8 yards. They would extend their lead to 10-0 on an FG by K Jake Moody. Purdy-to-Aiyuk’s 2nd TD connection would extend it to 17-0, and another FG by Moody would extend it to 20-0. All in the first half.
“I really thought they did a really good job of staying on schedule on offense and being in manageable third downs that allowed them to win enough of those on 3rd downs. It’ll reduce you in those circumstances where you can’t create a splash,” Tomlin said.
Meanwhile, the Steelers struggled to get first downs and execute as QB Kenny Pickett was pressured and sacked often. And his pass on the 2nd drive was intercepted by 49ers CB Chavarius Ward. The Steelers’ offense would catch a break late in the 2nd quarter as Pickett led them on a 12-play-95-yard drive that ended with a TD pass from Pickett to TE Pat Freiermuth. But unfortunately, those were the only points that the Steelers would score the entire game.
“On the other side of the ball, we didn’t win enough possession downs to be competitive,” commented Tomlin. “You can’t start games 0-5 on 3rd down and think you’re going to have the type of day that you desire. You’ve got to win the weighty downs.”
To open the 3rd quarter, the 49ers would add their final points in an impressive 65-yard TD run by RB Christian McCaffrey, who led all scorers with 152 yards on 22 carries. Aiyuk would lead all pass-catchers with 129 yards on 8 receptions, and Purdy passed for 220 yards and 2 TDs. The defense would sack Pickett 5 times (led by DE Drake Jackson’s 3), and S Talanoa Hufanga would get the team’s second interception.
“Yeah, we’re not possessing the ball, man, that’s going to happen,” said Tomlin about McCaffery’s performance. “We’ve got to do a better job on those weighty downs to minimize our exposure to him. We’ve got to do a better job on both sides of the ball on those weighty downs to limit our exposure to him.”
The Steelers certainly had their chances to get back into this game, but unfortunately, Pickett, the offensive line, and the receivers just weren’t on the same page. Pickett passes for 232 yards a TD and 2 interceptions, RB Najee Harris would lead with 31 rushing yards, WR Allen Robinson led the team with 64 yards, and LB TJ Watt had all 3 of the team’s sacks, including one that resulted in a forced-fumble recovery.
“It’s just that. You don’t have enough Snaps. You’re going 3-and-out. You can talk about run game, but run games were not enough snaps because we were 3-and-out,” Tomlin said.
Losing the first game does not a season make, but the Steelers must learn from this, shake it off, and prepare for their 2nd game of the season against the 1-0 Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football.
“It’s more than just kind of identifying that component. It was a failure on our part in all areas,” said Tomlin. “We’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to play better. We talked about a lot of the things and worked on a lot of the things that unfolded in ways that we didn’t want them to, and so we go back to the drawing board.
We accept responsibility obviously for the outcome. 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 got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways.”
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