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Poor execution and blatant mistakes lead to a miserable day for the Steelers

It felt like a matchup of the men against the boys on Sunday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium. Unfortunately, the Steelers weren’t the men.

After a preseason that infused Pittsburgh fans with hope, the contest against the San Francisco 49ers was a kick in the gut. One game does not make a season, but it was shocking to see the Steelers so thoroughly overmatched. The gap between them and the 49ers, who are among the league’s elite teams, appears to be significant. Still, as good as San Francisco was, the true story of this game was the Steelers’ inability to execute well in all phases. While the Niners were the better team, Pittsburgh’s mistakes on the field and as a coaching staff never gave them a chance to win.

The story of this particular mismatch was told in the first quarter, when San Francisco outgained the Steelers 140-2 and built a 10-0 lead. That lead became 17-0 just over a minute into the second quarter, when quarterback Brock Purdy found Brandon Aiyuk for a touchdown on a perfectly-placed back shoulder fade despite excellent coverage from Patrick Peterson. When the Steelers weren’t beating themselves, the Niners were simply too good.

And what of those mistakes? Each early possession contained one or more that put the Steelers in a bad spot, particularly on offense. On Pittsburgh’s opening series, for example, they faced 2nd-and-4, where coordinator Matt Canada called a reverse to Calvin Austin III. It was a curious call because that sort of misdirection is usually reserved for when a defense is over-pursuing the football. After just one play, which was a pass, it was too early to make that determination. Perhaps Canada wanted to preemptively slow down the Niners defense. Whatever the case, the play lost a yard and the Steelers squandered a good opening down. The drive ended on the next play when Kenny Pickett was sacked for a ten-yard loss.

The Steelers’ opened their second drive with a zone run to Najee Harris. Center Mason Cole and left guard Isaac Seumalo miscommunicated their assignment, which involved a combo block on nose tackle Arik Armstead and linebacker Fred Warner. Both blockers stayed on Armstead, while Warner came screaming downhill to make a big hit on Harris for a two-yard loss. The Steelers were immediately behind the chains. Two plays later, Pickett threw a hitch route to Diontae Johnson. Johnson slipped while making his break and the ball was intercepted by cornerback Charvarius Ward.

On Pittsburgh’s third possession, facing 2nd and 8, they called another zone run for Harris. This time, Armstead split a double team between Cole and right guard James Daniels and penetrated into the backfield. This forced Harris to cut back to his left, where tackle Dan Moore Jr. should have blocked backside linebacker Oren Burks. Instead, Moore came across to Warner on the front side of the play, leaving Burks unblocked. He made another big hit on Harris for no gain. Then, on 3rd and 8, Pickett had Johnson open on a dig route that would have earned a first down, but he missed him. The Steelers punted, San Francisco drove for another touchdown, and with 13:30 remaining in the half it was 17-0.

Pickett struggled mightily throughout the contest. Unsupported by the run game, and facing a heavy pass rush, he was out of rhythm and inaccurate. The first interception was not his fault, but he missed on several makeable throws, including one near the end of the half to Johnson on a simple inside slant that would have gone for a touchdown. Pickett made up for that with a beautiful throw to Pat Freiermuth for a score with ten seconds remaining. Still, it was a rough start.

It didn’t get much better in the second half. Pickett continued to be off target, and he threw a second interception in the fourth quarter that was forced into triple coverage. Clearly, Pickett didn’t see a defense that looked anything like San Francisco’s while compiling a perfect pre-season passer rating. The young quarterback has already made big strides from where he was at this point last season, and he will undoubtedly improve. But the contrast between his pre-season play and his performance on Sunday was striking.

Pittsburgh’s mistakes weren’t simply reserved for the offense. The Steelers burned timeouts on defense and on their field goal block team because they couldn’t get the right call or the right personnel on the field. Punter Pressley Harvin III hit a poor punt that went just 36 yards that set the Niners up near midfield on their first touchdown drive. The team also couldn’t seem to find their footing on the wet stadium turf. Johnson’s slip led to Pickett’s first half interception. Peterson slipped and fell on San Francisco’s initial touchdown while trying to cover Aiyuk. Freiermuth slipped and fell awkwardly on his knee while trying to catch a 3rd down pass that was incomplete. It was odd to see the Steelers not have a grasp of the field conditions despite being the home team.

On defense, Pittsburgh was simply bullied by a more physical San Francisco offense. The image that encapsulated the entire game was of Aiyuk simply flattening cornerback Levi Wallace on Christian McCaffrey’s 65-yard touchdown run on the second play of the third quarter. Aiyuk’s block was emblematic of the fact San Francisco was faster, tougher, more aggressive and more physical. It was a sobering reality for a Steelers’ team who found out the hard way that the pre-season and the regular season are two different animals.

So what now? The Steelers will have an extra day this week to recover and lick their wounds. They don’t play until next Monday night, when they host the Browns. Between now and then, they will need to do some soul-searching. Losing to the 49ers is no crime. Being annihilated by them in a game that was never competitive is something altogether. To beat the best teams, you have to play your ‘A’ game. Pittsburgh put up a big, fat ‘F’ on Sunday. The good news is there’s nowhere to go but up. Without better execution, though, there are serious questions as to how “up” they can go.

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