49ers Will Test the Steelers’ Mettle On Opening Day
The central question in the minds of Steelers Nation as we approach Sunday’s regular season kickoff is how well this substantially revamped edition of the Black-and-Gold stacks up against top-echelon NFL competition. In matching up the Steelers with the San Francisco 49ers on Opening Day, the league’s scheduling gods decreed that fans won’t need to wait to begin making their initial judgments.
Despite being forced to start an untested rookie quarterback in 2022, and then losing their opportunity to appear in the Super Bowl due to his untimely injury, the 49ers nevertheless staked their claim as one of the strongest NFL teams. Under the leadership of Brock Purdy — the 2022 NFL Draft’s “Mr. Irrelevant” — San Francisco compiled a 13-4 season record and exceeded the Steelers in points-scored vs. points-surrendered by 211 points or 12.4 points per game over 17 games. The 49ers offense scored 142 points more than the Steelers, while their defense surrendered 69 fewer points. San Francisco’s 2022 season also featured a 10-game winning streak.
Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle are three names that jump off of the roster sheet when pondering the daunting challenge of stopping the 49ers offense. These players form the nucleus of San Francisco’s attack and each is distinguished by being a nearly irresistible force on the gridiron. With this high caliber of talent at key offensive positions, Purdy didn’t need to play heroic football during his rookie season. Nevertheless, Purdy was surprisingly competent and managed to greatly exceed expectations.
But as pundits have observed in reference to Kenny Pickett, one partial season hardly makes an NFL career. It won’t be known until the season begins whether Purdy’s surgically repaired throwing arm will hamper his capabilities. Assuming the arm is sound and holds up to the rigors of an NFL season, Purdy needs to firmly establish his capability to become a championship quarterback. He certainly has the team around him to reach his goal.
But if the Steelers are looking for a potential Achilles heel on this talented 49ers team, it would have to be found in the intangible element of San Francisco’s continuing struggle to secure the quarterback position. During the 20 years from 1979-1999, the 49ers dominated the NFL, bringing home five Lombardi trophies under the leadership of Joe Montana and Steve Young. But since those glory days in the City by the Bay, a convoy of quarterbacks including Jeff Garcia, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert and Jimmy Garoppolo failed to lead San Francisco back to the promised land.
Purdy certainly has potential to be distinguished someday as the most egregious oversight in history by NFL scouts. But given the 49ers’ modern streak of bad luck at QB, plus Purdy’s relative inexperience, reasonable doubt remains concerning his potential to be the QB San Francisco needs. Sunday’s matchup between two young QBs — one drafted at No. 20 overall and the other at No. 262 — likely will be the key factor determining the outcome. And the excitement which invariably accompanies Opening Day will be heightened by the fact that both Pickett and Purdy are highly motivated — albeit by opposite expectations.