The 5: What to watch for in the Steelers season opener vs. 49ers

We made it. The NFL is back, and so are the Pittsburgh Steelers with as much in-city hype as I can remember in the last five years. Kenny Pickett showed flashes of elite quarterbacking in the preseason, T.J. Watt is healthy, and there has been almost no drama in the last six weeks leading up to the opener.

What could put a damper on this excitement?

The 49ers and Nick Bosa will certainly try on Sunday in Pittsburgh. Here are five things to watch in the opener:

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The trenches

No one was better on the line of scrimmage a year ago than the 49ers. Trent Williams is one of the best offensive tackles to ever put on a helmet, Arik Armstead was one of the best interior rushers in football last season, and to add insult to injury, the 49ers signed Javon Hargrave to a massive deal to further bolster their defensive line.

On the flip side, the Steelers’ offensive line should be the best it’s been in four years, and Pickett’s pocket awareness looks much improved this season. If the Steelers are able to hold up in the trenches, they are going to have a shot to win. It will be a fascinating test in Week 1.

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George Pickens

Pickens has been the definition of a preseason darling, and for good reason, but it’s time for him to take his dominant camp and preseason performances to the games that matter.

There is a real good chance that Charvarius Ward, the 49ers CB1, shadows Pickens all day.

It will be a good test of the young wideout’s development but also a good way to set the tone for his usage all season. Stat predictions are lame, but I do think Pickens should get 8-10 targets and maybe a touchdown.

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Too many men

When Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was asked how they would go about stopping Christian McCaffrey on Sunday, Austin said “We are going to try and play with 12 guys”. While it was some exaggeration from Austin, the emphasis on stopping the league’s best dual offensive threat should not be overstated.

The 49ers offense runs through CMC and he will be heavily used while sophomore QB Brock Purdy gets acquainted with full-speed football again after his Tommy John surgery.

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2022 DPOY vs 2021 DPOY

For my money, the two best defensive players in football will go head to head on Sunday afternoon. T.J. Watt and Nick Bosa are the last two Defensive Players of the Year. They are complete game-changers for their teams and will play a huge role in the outcome of this game.

With Bosa recently signing his new contract, it seems likely that he will play on a pitch count and mostly on obvious passing downs.

Still, Watt had a similar situation two years ago and still dominated the Steelers Week 1 opener at Buffalo. Furthermore, this will be a good opening test for Watt coming off a season that saw him miss seven games with a pectoral injury. Pittsburgh will need him to turn in a third straight elite opening performance to have a shot against a stacked 49ers roster.

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Kenny Pickett

All offseason it’s been nothing but praise for Pickett and his young offensive weapons, but now it’s time to prove that they can really do it. He had a perfect preseason and was voted a team captain by his teammates.

GM Omar Khan and Head Coach Mike Tomlin put together a great complement of pieces on the offensive line and receiving corps, rookies, and veterans alike.

Everything is there for Pickett to take a year 2 jump and join the great young quarterbacks of the AFC. Can he do it? Sunday is the first step.

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