February 26, 2024
Brandon Aiyuk's breakout is here and the Niners' defense looks even better with a big-time offseason addition.

How’s that for a season opener?

The 49ers have been slow starters in recent years under Kyle Shanahan, feeling out the season before going on a late run.

They started this season with one of the best performances of the Shanahan era.

The Niners dominated in every single facet of the game, leading to a great number of studs (not all accounted for here) and some serious stretches to find some duds.

The Studs

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QB Brock Purdy

The elbow looks just fine.

The now-undisputed starter operated Shanahan’s offense with aplomb in his first game back from elbow surgery, not only making the timing throws necessary to move the ball down the field with yards after the catch, but also challenging the Pittsburgh defense with deep shots and scrambles.

Purdy completed 19 of 29 passes for 220 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.

In short, Purdy looked like a better version of the quarterback we saw last season — a season where he didn’t lose a regular-season game.

WR Brandon Aiyuk

It was the best game of his NFL career. Aiyuk was an unstoppable force Sunday, juking Patrick Peterson into the next county for his first touchdown of the game, following it with a brilliant contested back-shoulder catch for a second touchdown.

Aiyuk spent the whole game (save for that second touchdown) wide open. That’s not just Shanahan’s scheme — that’s a receiver who is operating at the highest level.

Aiyuk had eight catches on eight targets for 129 yards and those two touchdowns. In all, he posted a gobsmacking 17.7 expected points added on Sunday.

Aiyuk also had a massive downfield block to help Christian McCaffrey take his 65-yard run to the end zone at the start of the second half.

The breakout is here, and it is spectacular.

LB Fred Warner

The Niners’ middle linebacker turned in a dominant performance that harkened back to a past era of the NFL.

He had two pass breakups, one deep downfield resulting in an interception for Talanoa Hufanga. He also, along with Dre Greenlaw, stymied the Steelers’ run game with sideline-to-sideline coverage.

Warner controlled the entire field, finishing the game with eight tackles.

DT Javon Hargrave

The Niners’ linebackers ran free because the 49ers’ new defensive tackle and key offseason acquisition had a brilliant game in the middle of the defensive line.

Not only was he stout against the run, always creating a push and often taking on multiple linemen, but he showed pass-rush prowess, too, picking up a late sack.

The Niners have been searching for an impact 1-technique lineman since they traded DeForest Buckner to the Colts.

They appear to have that player in Hargrave, and he changes everything for this defense.

DE Drake Jackson

New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks deployed Jackson as a third-down specialist. Good call.

Jackson had three sacks Sunday — two coming on third down and one in garbage time — and showed a serious burst on the outside. His pairing with Clelin Ferrell, the first- and second-down option opposite Nick Bosa, looks positive for the Niners.

RB Christian McCaffrey

It wasn’t a great game for McCaffrey on the aggregate — there were a lot of short runs against a Pittsburgh defense that knew the Niners were running while up big.

But the Niners’ running back — who is yet to lose a regular-season game in a San Francisco uniform — had the game-sealing touchdown in the third quarter, a spectacular spinning 65-yard run.

K Jake Moody

Perfect on the day. Everyone can stop holding their breath now.

The Duds

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RG Spencer Burford

It wasn’t a terrible game for Burford, but someone has to be a dud. The Niners’ right guard had a couple of nice blocks on the move but also had three penalties: a holding and false-start penalty in the first half and a facemask penalty in the second.

NB Deommodore Lenoir

The Niners started the third-year defensive back in the slot Sunday. While things started well, the Steelers’ two-minute offense brought about a critical (if dubious) personal foul penalty against Leonoir and multiple passes in front of him.

RT Colton McKivitz

T.J. Watt is a brutal assignment for any offensive lineman, but in his first start as the team’s starting right tackle, McKivitz had his lunch eaten by the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

It took a while for Watt to get going, but in the second half, he beat McKivitz repeatedly. His strip sack of Purdy in the third quarter gave Pittsburgh life in a game that should have been long over.

Kick return coverage

The Steelers didn’t do anything with the strong field position Anthony McFarland provided them on kickoffs, but it is an area where Pittsburgh beat the Niners. It might have been the only area.