There is plenty for the 49ers to be ecstatic about heading into the season. Brock Purdy’s surgically repaired elbow appears to have healed without complications. Nick Bosa is signed and ready for Week 1, on a defensive line that added Javon Hargrave.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers are no joke, especially for a 49ers team prone to inconsistent starts to the season. In Mike Tomlin’s 17-year tenure, Pittsburgh has never — NEVER — had a losing record. It’s hard to imagine that will change this season, with a promising young quarterback behind an improved line.
Sunday is going to be a tough game. Here’s what to look for:
Handling Kenny Pickett (who can play)
This entire training camp, Kyle Shanahan issued an edict for one thing from his quarterbacks: to “rip it.”
Trey Lance hesitated. Brock Purdy rips it.
So does Kenny Pickett.
That’s not a statement of sum talent or the totality of who those players are as quarterbacks. But the latter two make decisions quickly. Quarterbacks can’t afford the briefest moments of hesitation.
And the Steelers’ young quarterback showed last season that he mostly gets it. He sees a window and has the touch and decisiveness to thread balls into difficult windows.
He’s also got the ability to take off under pressure, or even on a handful of designed runs. He’s not Justin Fields, but he can move. His preseason tape, for what it’s worth, looks impressive.
Perhaps more consequential is the fact that the Steelers invested in their offensive line, drafting Georgia’s Broderick Jones in the first round and signing two former Eagles in stellar guard Isaac Seumalo, and backup lineman Nick Herbig (whose brother, an outside linebacker, was drafted in the fourth round out of Wisconsin).
This will be an excellent test for the 49ers’ defense, who will also have to deal with the surging George Pickens, a premium tight end in Pat Freiermuth, Diontae Johnson and whatever on earth is left of Allen Robinson.
Nick Bosa’s involvement and Drake Jackson
We do not know exactly how the 49ers plan to use Nick Bosa. You would expect, given that he’s missed all of camp, that he would not be employed fully.
But Bosa said he’s prepared for a normal workload and is as rigorously committed to staying in shape as any player in the NFL.
So don’t expect him to play just a handful of snaps. It seems likely he’ll play a fair bit, assuming the 49ers are comfortable with that.
But if there’s any game he’ll be on something of a pitch count for, this would be the one. That means Drake Jackson and Clelin Ferrell — neither of whom have been declared the starter opposite him — will likely see plenty of reps.
We still don’t know what Jackson is. He flashed he’s freaky athleticism last year, but his conditioning fell off in the second half of the season, as he racked up DNPs late in the year. He’s added weight, but missed plenty of camp.
Now it’s time to see what he can offer. If he and Ferrell are both solid edge options for San Francisco, it gives them a ton of versatility along a defensive front. Jackson taking a major leap has the potential to make it the best four-man unit in the league. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Sunday is a prime opportunity for him to show what he’s about.
Oh, as for that new guy, Hargrave? Watch him against Pittsburgh center Mason Cole. If he can get isolated one-on-one, some good things will happen. Cole has shown some deficiencies in pass protection, especially handling stunts, so even if the 49ers don’t bring a blitz, there could be a beneficial matchup there.
Early season sluggishness vs. precision
Offensive line coach/run game coordinator Chris Foerster said this week that he’s not quite sure why the 49ers have had inconsistent starts. He pointed out the fact that the 49ers started in a monsoon bowl with the Chicago Bears and had a first-time starter before putting a training camp-less Jimmy Garoppolo on the field.
The conditions in Pittsburgh — with a fair chance of rain and thunderstorms — could also be less than favorable.
But having Brock Purdy with a full training camp as the starter under his belt — running an offense that’s catered to the 49ers’ strengths, and not protecting weaknesses, like was the case with Lance — should go a fairly long way in making sure things run smooth off the bat.
That, though, has to be proven on all levels. The 2021 season had a 3-5 start.
This often feels like a team that struggles to get in sync until after the first couple months of the season, possibly because of how exacting some of the blocking assignments and details are. But everyone in this offense has experienced at least a full season in it. There is continuity.
If there was any year to hit the ground running a la 2019, and shut the door on any criticism of Purdy not being “the guy,” this would be it. And a tough opponent, on the road, is a great way to establish urgency from the jump.