Takeaways from the Steelers’ season-opening loss to the 49ers

Steel City Underground presents post-game takeaways from every Pittsburgh Steelers game of the 2023 NFL regular season.

NFL fans are rarely ones to temper their emotions, and members of Steelers Nation aren’t immune to having to find a way to manage restraint when it comes to the performance of their Pittsburgh Steelers.

After an exciting 3-0 preseason that displayed tremendous growth in the Steelers from their 2022 season, fans were elated; perhaps a bit too quick to feel that 2023 was going to be a season with nothing but success and a trip to the Super Bowl. Social media threads were full of fans predicting that outcome (Stairway to Seven, baby) for Pittsburgh before kickoff, but the thrumming the Steelers took at Acrisure Stadium – a 30 to 7 loss to the San Francisco 49ers – once again had the threads quickly filled with calls for firings, negative debate surrounding a number of players, and an overall sense of dismay and disgust.

To put the game into rational perspective, however, we pulled out a few key takeaways from the season-opening loss.

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Where was the offense?

A ton of blame for the loss is landing squarely on the shoulders of second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this game image screamed just how much work is still needed a long the offensive line before it should have ever been in consideration for being nicknamed the “Pickett Fence” by anyone. The 49ers threw everything NFL insiders knew they had at their disposal at the sink that was the Steelers’ offensive front.

Pickett didn’t play a flawless game, by any means. His timing on passing routes was not sharp. He may not have been able to control whether or not a target remained on their feet or not, but Pickett was responsible for where he placed the ball. He could have thrown the ball safely away instead of taking a sack and loss of chunks of yardage. He looked nervous and uncertain, and it wasn’t surprising to see him glancing up at the video board to see the replay on any given poor play and grimace.

Yes, Pickett was hurried. That doesn’t explain why the ground game never really got going, or why the offense left their counterparts on defense on the field for most of the game. It doesn’t all fall on the offensive line, either, but their inability to create consistent, effective run lanes and solid pass blocks made a big difference in how successful the Steelers offense operated.

There were moments where the offense came alive, but they were much too few and far between to compete with a San Francisco team that was stacked with weapons who are familiar with each other and riding the momentum of their successes last season.

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The middle of the “D” remains questionable

Despite every attempt at creating a more formidable center of their defense, the Steelers got exploited heavily between the hash marks. Whether it was quick passes or runs, Purdy took advantage of Pittsburgh giving up huge amounts of the middle of the field.

Yes, Cameron Heyward and DeMarvin Leal were injured during the game. Leal was able to return while Heyward tried but could not, but that wasn’t where the issue was.

The 49ers took advantage of interior linebackers and defensive backs in order to eat up time of possession as they set up bigger plays down the field. They did it repetitively with little real resistance.

The middle of the Steelers defense has been an area of concern that appeared to have been improved to the point of being competent and competitive. After this loss, however, the need to go back to the white board and tweak personnel packages is a necessity.

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Watt is still a game changer, but he’s one player

The fact that T.J. Watt tied James Harrison‘s franchise record in sacks is lost on no one after watching the performance he put together in Week 1. He nearly recovered one sack-fumble, and when the officials didn’t give it to him he simply went after the ball (instead of wrapping up the quarterback) when he later earned a strip-sack and recovery.

Watt was fired up, and he always seems to find another level when it comes to games that the Steelers experience high levels of frustration in. It’s almost as if he channels all that energy into forcing himself to hit a whole new gear.

Unfortunately, Watt isn’t the only player on the field. He did have some nice support from teammates, but no one seemed to feel the sense of urgency to push past the disappointment they’d experienced very early in the game quite like he did.

That isn’t to dismiss anyone’s efforts; it’s more of an observation on the type of mentality Watt brings to the team. If his teammates could somehow capture that same mental skill, they might have found more ways to get off the field, and done so before a win was essentially out of reach.

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Extra thoughts…

One week of the season is in the books. There’s no going back for a do-over. The loss doesn’t spell out the level of doom and gloom some fans are already proclaiming as they’re readying to toss in their Terrible Towels.

There are areas that need addressed, but more areas where the Steelers of 2023 have shown they could really shine if a little more spit and elbow grease are applied. The team needs to use their season-opening loss as a tool for refining their game. Sometimes the best motivation for future greatness is taking an early knockout and being able to get back up to fight harder, and smarter.

Stay tuned throughout this upcoming week as we do more analysis of Week 1 and transition to looking at the Steelers’ matchup in Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh.

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