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Steelers Embarrassed by Superior 49ers

Regardless of the final score, it’s often said that a loss is a loss. But the Steelers’ 30-7 defeat at the hands of a clearly superior San Francisco 49ers team made a particularly large deposit in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ bank of disappointments. Following the opening kickoff at a packed Acrisure Stadium, the 49ers offense led by Brock Purdy quickly began making mincemeat out of the Steelers revamped defense on their way to compiling 408 yards combined rushing and passing. Purdy looked every bit the NFL’s newest rising star, passing for 220 yards and two TDs while recording a QB rating of 111.3. In so doing, the once-irrelevant draftee completely outshined Pittsburgh’s 2022 first-rounder, Kenny Pickett.

How bad was Pickett? While he passed for a total of 232 yards, most of that yardage came after the issue had been decided. Kenny threw two interceptions, winding up with an anemic QB rating of 68.4. Besides leading a 95-yard TD drive at the end of the second quarter, Pickett generally was out of synch with his receivers and off-target with his throws. But as Head Coach Mike Tomlin pointed out in his post-game presser, it’s difficult for an offense to develop any rhythm while sitting on the sidelines.

The Steelers’ running attack, widely expected to be much improved this season, reverted to its sluggish pattern of recent years, compiling a total of only 41 yards. Instead of controlling the clock as they frequently had done during the latter part of the 2022 season, the Steelers allowed the 49ers to dominate possession (37:23 to 22:37). Against the league’s best defense, the Steelers offense converted only 5 of 15 third downs and 1 of 3 fourth downs. And the further they fell behind on the scoreboard, the more Pickett was sacked attempting to play catch-up. The 49ers defense wound up with five sacks.

As bad as these stats look, they’re only symptoms of a larger and more troubling problem. Quite simply, in their initial test against a quality opponent, the Black-and-gold neither were prepared nor competitive. We saw a highly touted, first-round QB appearing to have no clue about how to attack one of the league’s best defenses. We saw plenty of new faces on both sides of the ball for the Steelers, but not a single one who managed to distinguish himself. On both sides of the ball, the Steelers gave the appearance of playing a meaningless, preseason scrimmage. Not until late in the second quarter did the offense even begin to resemble a competitive team. But after Christian McCaffery’s 65-yard TD jaunt down the sideline with less than a minute elapsed in the third quarter, the Steelers’ brief resurgence evaporated as quickly as it had materialized. Any notion of a Steelers comeback was laid to rest once and for all, as many fans already had begun their exodus from Acrisure Stadium.

When the home team plays this poorly, it’s normally suggested to write off the game as an anomaly. But Sunday’s debacle reinforces the impression formed last season that the Steelers simply aren’t capable of hanging with teams like the 49ers, Eagles, Chiefs, Bengals or Bills. Not only did San Francisco look entirely prepared for Opening Day, but they looked superior to the Steelers in every phase of the game. In the wake of Pittsburgh’s successful preseason, this lopsided defeat was a particularly rude awakening for the team and for Steelers Nation.

Quite clearly, Pittsburgh was never remotely in the game. The Steelers didn’t merely stumble on Opening Day — they did a collective face-plant. They never rose to the occasion and the only QB on the field Sunday afternoon who looked the part of a first-rounder was Brock Purdy. Defensively — in addition to Cam Heyward’s injury — perhaps a more troubling sign was that, despite recording three sacks, T.J. Watt’s performance proved largely irrelevant to the game’s outcome. Now that’s something Steelers Nation definitely isn’t accustomed to seeing.

While it’s still expected the Steelers will rebound from this blowout, the memory of being totally dominated by an opponent is difficult for a team to shake. This 30-7 turkey is yet another reminder of last season’s dismal performances against the stronger NFL teams. While the season is young, this suggests the team hasn’t truly improved as expected. Despite the rhetoric about “not living in our fears,” when a team is drubbed in its home stadium on Opening Day, this can create a psychological barrier, particularly on a team comprising so many young players.

While nobody wants this defeat to define the Steelers’ season, we know that several other NFL teams including the Lions, Browns and Jets successfully beat the odds by opening their seasons with victories against quality competition. That’s why it seems at least premature to assume these 2023 Steelers will meet many of the high expectations that were so unceremoniously deflated on September 10th.

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