SANTA CLARA — With time at a bare minimum going into the opener, Colton McKivitz will have to settle for getting in some work against Maxx Crosby as opposed to Nick Bosa.
McKivitz steps in as the starting right tackle Sunday against the host Pittsburgh Steelers, and while he’ll have some help in terms of additional blockers, it will be his responsibility to put his body between edge rusher T.J. Watt and 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy.
Having grown up in Jacobsburg, Ohio, about 90 minutes from Pittsburgh, McKivitz will have friends and family present.
“It’s a great way to start. Having joint practices with the Raiders and seeing Maxx was really helpful,” McKivitz said. “I’ve had this one circled. It’s going to be a homecoming for me and I’m excited to go against the best they have to offer.”
Watt is the most formidable Steelers defender as an edge rusher in a 3-4 defense. He comes almost exclusively from the left side at 6-foot-4, 252 pounds and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 with 20 1/2 sacks — two more than Bosa had in winning the same award last season.
Limited to 10 games last season with a torn pectoral, Watt had 5 1/2 sacks and has 43 sacks in his last 30 games since the start of the 2020 season. He signed a contract extension in 2021 that pays him an average of $28 million annually, which was the industry standard for edge rushers before Bosa checked in at $34 million on Wednesday.
Greg Cosell, an analyst for NFL Films, described Bosa as being the more powerful of the two players while crediting Watt’s athleticism off the edge.
“He’s a little more of a flexible bender than Bosa but he’s not as strong as Bosa,” Cosell told KNBR Thursday.
McKivitz believes what he’s seen from Watt on film is similar to what he saw in practice from Bosa the last two seasons.
“They’re both explosive and play hard,” McKivitz said. “The one thing you see is never quitting on big plays, continuing through reps. He’s go ta lot of tools in his back pocket, so the key to him is getting your hands on him and making sure he doesn’t turn the edge of that pocket. He’s a lot like Nick in that he plays physical and plays hard so hopefully we’ll get a few reps.”
Pittsburgh edge rusher T.J. Watt (90) pressures Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson. File photo
While teams often flop their edge rushers to give different looks, Watt made it clear to the Pittsburgh coaching staff he wanted to rush from the left — which means he and McKivitz will be seeing a lot of each other.
“The bend isn’t the same,” Watt said last June on a Ben Roethlisberger podcast. “I just have so much muscle memory on the left side and it feels so natural. When I’m on the right, it’s like I’m working against my body.”
As an edge in a 3-4 defense, Watt presents a different look than that of Bosa.
“Sometimes he’s standing up, sometimes in a three-point stance,” McKivitz said. “It changes the angle a little bit, but he can cover a lot of ground in a couple of steps.”
Tight end George Kittle said McKivitz will get by with a little help from his friends.
“I don’t think we’re going to leave him one-on-one every single play,” Kittle said. “I’m not going to give you all of our game plan but we’re going to help him out as much as we can. I don’t have concerns. I think Colton is going to do a great job.”
At 6-foot-6, 301 pounds, McKivitz replaces Mike McGlinchey, who signed with Denver in free agency. Rather than enter the free agent market themselves for a starter or draft a tackle, the 49ers felt good enough about McKivitz to sign him to a two-year, $4.6 million contract and gave him the job.
Suddenly, the days of shuttling from the left side to the right side as both a guard and tackle were over.
A talk with run-game coordinator and line coach Chris Foerster helped shape the approach for McKivitz going into the season.
“He told me is to come in with the mentality and the confidence that you are the starter,” McKivitz said. “I’ve always been a swing guy and now it’s a mentality of, ‘It’s your spot.’ That’s the biggest thing for me is having that confidence in knowing I’m the guy and can play with these three guys.”
Zeroing in on one position, McKivitz believes, will help refine his game. The right side of the 49ers line will be highly scrutinized, with Spencer Burford as the fulltime starter at guard after splitting time with Daniel Brunskill as a rookie.
“There’s a lot more consistency, that’s for sure,” McKivitz said. “It hasn’t been a day at guard, a day at tackle, or a day at right and a day at left. I’ve been able to be consistent in mystance and how the sets look and build chemistry with Spence as well instead of playing with different guys every day.”
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McKivitz showed enough as a rookie to play in 13 games and even started at guard opposite the Rams’ Aaron Donald (it did not go well). After failing to make the 53-man roster in his second season, McKivitz had to work his way back from the practice squad.
“It’s time to stop thinking of himself as the guy who came up through the practice squad and got himself to where he is today,” Foerster said. “He’s embraced his role and performed well.”
Left tackle Trent Williams thinks the ups and downs have contributed to McKivitz becoming a confident starter.
“He’s put in the work. Every year he’s been presented with a challenge coming into camp — whether it’s fighting to make the roster or have to go on the practice squad,” Williams said. “He’s been through it all, except for being a Day 1 starter. He’s earned that.”