PITTSBURGH – Six months since Brock Purdy’s elbow surgery, he and the 49ers now begin an exhaustive march toward Super Bowl LVIII.
“It was somewhat of a long six months,” Purdy said Thursday. “But at the same time, it’s like, ‘Man, I feel like that Eagles game was just yesterday.’ ”
So much chaos has transpired since the 49ers’ Jan. 29 loss in the NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia. So much beyond Purdy’s elbow tendon getting torn on the offense’s opening drive to detonate title aspirations and a 12-game win streak.
New players came aboard, such as a No. 2 quarterback in Sam Darnold and arguably the NFL’s No. 1 free agent in defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. Some teammates left, such as 2021 draft bust Trey Lance, for a 2024 fourth-round pick from Dallas.
Completing the turbulence was Nick Bosa. The NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year sacked the NFL’s richest contract ever for a non-quarterback (five years, $170 million), after being a no-show through training camp and the preseason.
“Here we are getting ready for Week 1 and I’m really excited about it,” Purdy said.
Here, they’ll return to Acrisure Stadium (formerly Heinz Field) for the first time since 2015, when they got clobbered 43-18 in Week 2 under then-coach Jim Tomsula. Last time the 49ers opened the season here, they claimed a 24-13 win in 1993, a year before their fifth (and most recent) Super Bowl-winning season.
“Especially Week 1, they live and breathe Pittsburgh Steelers football. That atmosphere is just crazy,” said safety Tashaun Gipson, who’s lost 5-of-6 career visits. “Those towels will be waving. It’s going to be awesome.”
Here is how this year’s version can repeat that start, en route to possibly a similar season finale:
1. BLOCK WATT
Right tackle Colton McKivitz’s assignment for his first Week 1 start is to merely keep T.J. Watt away from Purdy, who, you may recall, got hit from the front-side by Hasson Reddick in that NFC Championship Game’s injury-causing sack.
Watt’s 70 ½ sacks since 2018 lead the NFL, and he’s tallied 28 over the past two seasons (while Bosa accrued a NFL-high 34). When it comes to explosive and hard-charging pass rushers, McKivitz can draw on his experience in practice against Bosa, even if they haven’t squared off since last season.
“He’s got a 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,” McKivitz said, who has five career starts and replaces Mike McGlinchey (now on the Denver Broncos).
“I’m sure he’s like any other guy would be: you’ll get a lump in his throat, know it’ll be a challenge and a full day of work,” offensive line coach Chris Foerster said of McKivitz. “I remember Trent (Williams’) first game. He didn’t think he was going to get that feeling. Then he met Demarcus Ware on opening day and realized, ‘Holy cow, this is a whole different thing than I thought.’ For the whole game, he hung on and his eyes were as big as can be, like ‘I am so far out of my element.’ ”
Don’t expect the 49ers to often leave McKivitz one-on-one with Watt, with help coming from the likes of George Kittle, Charlie Woerner and Kyle Juszczyk. Also, the 49ers likely will spring Purdy opposite of Watt to continue last season’s trend of rolling more often to his left.
2. BOSA AND COMPANY
Bosa’s much-needed arrival ratchets the 49ers’ pass rush into another stratosphere. Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett, after going 7-5 as a rookie starter, is commanding the 49ers’ respect after a perfect preseason (perfect, in terms of 158.3 passer rating). Pickett, by the way, was the 20th player drafted, a mere 242 spots ahead of 49ers counterpart Brock Purdy.
Bosa, after only practicing in Friday’s light session, declared himself “confident” and “up for my normal workload.” He’ll play with money off his mind. “It’s going to be a weight off my shoulders, and I’ll be able to not think of the negative thoughts that come with playing this game,” Bosa said. “I can play free and play for one reason: to win games.”
Charvarius Ward, the 49ers’ top cornerback, is battling a heel issue. Don’t expect him to strictly shadow Diontae Johnson, who had no touchdowns among his team-high 88 catches last year. The Steelers also come with George Pickens (801 yards as a 2022 rookie) and 10th-year veteran Allen Robinson, so the 49ers cornerback corps will be tested from the jump. Look for Pickett to target the Niners’ new nickel back, whether that’s Isaiah Oliver or possibly Deommodore Lenoir, who figures to start on the outside.
3. SEEK SIX, NOT THREE
A fully stocked offense gives the 49ers no excuse but to rack up points, and they’d be best served with touchdowns instead of field-goal attempts. The 49ers’ kicking situation is compromised, and Steelers castoff Matthew Wright may need to fill in for rookie Jake Moody (sore leg). Visiting kickers have the worst field-goal percentage (37.5) on attempts of 50 yards or more compared to any other stadium that’s hosted at least 10 games the past decade. Field conditions already will be suspect considering the University of Pittsburgh hosts Cincinnati on Saturday there.
Once Purdy entered the fray last season, the 49ers scored over 30 points in 5-of-6 regular-season games, an unrivaled stretch under Shanahan that averaged four offensive touchdowns per game. Deebo Samuel missed essentially four games during that stretch run, so having him available and in better shape could really spark the offense’s capabilities.
The 49ers averaged only 19 points per game in Shanahan’s past six openers, winning only at Tampa Bay (2019, 31-17) and Detroit (2021, 41-33).
4. MAXIMIZE McCAFFREY
Christian McCaffrey figures to serve as their offensive catalyst, either as a rusher, receiver or decoy. This will be his first season opener with the 49ers, who traded with Carolina for the Stanford product last October.
McCaffrey said Week 1 always brings jitters, but this one will bring an arsenal of weapons around him. “When you’re on a talented team, the standard is very high of doing your job and doing it well,” McCaffrey said. “It’s been a lot of fun working with these guys and watching the special things they do.”
McCaffrey certainly looks primed for a legitimate shot at 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving, which he pulled off in 2019. He also makes life easier for Shanahan as a play caller.
“It just spaces everything out,” Shanahan said in June. “He really makes it easier to get the ball to get to (George) Kittle, to Deebo (Samuel), to (Brandon) Aiyuk, to Jauan (Jennings). As a play caller, I’m not as stressed, because you just let it happen. I don’t care what (the defenses) do, you guys pick your poison, go ahead and double him.”
Focusing too much on McCaffrey indeed could open up lanes for the 49ers’ yards-after-catch machines. “When you have a plethora of skill players out there that can make plays and score touchdowns at any time, it’s really fun,” said Kittle, who’s questionable because of a groin injury.
5. STUFF THE BOX
The 49ers want their defensive front-seven to dictate how this season unfolds. Stopping the run is always a top priority, and that starts up the middle, where the 49ers will deploy Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead as the interior starters ahead of linebackers extraordinaire Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. Bosa’s impact didn’t go unnoticed on last year’s No. 2-ranked run defense.
“I’m sure everybody knows he makes everybody’s life easier, not just me, being one of the most dominant defensive players in the league in the run and pass game, a complete player off the edge,” Warner said. “It opens up a lot of things for me.”
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Najee Harris, an Antioch High graduate, ran for 1,200 and 1,034 yards in his first two seasons as the Steelers’ starting running back. His understudy, Jaylen Warren, ran for 379 yards last season as an undrafted rookie, but he got ESPN predicting a bigger role for him this season.
Keeping the Steelers confined to the line of scrimmage also means the 49ers must shut down Pickett’s short-passing game. Tight end Pat Freiermuth had 63 receptions las season for 732 yards.
“This is a team, lot of star players, a lot of big-name guys,” defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “But we really do a good job of keeping the main thing the main thing and not focusing on outside noise.”