PITTSBURGH, PA — With expectations soaring after what most considered a good offseason and then a perfect 3-0 preseason, the Steelers opened the season with what figured to be a big test against the San Francisco 49ers, a team that had played in the past two NFC Championship games.
It was a test they most certainly did not pass.
San Francisco wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and running back Christian McCaffery had plenty to do with that.
Aiyuk caught eight passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns and also threw a key block on a McCaffery touchdown, while McCaffery rushed for 151 yards as the 49ers defeated the Steelers, 30-7, here at Acrisure Stadium to open the season.
That duo had more total yards (297) than the Steelers (246) had in the game and accounted for over two-thirds of San Francisco’s offense.
The Steelers rolled through the preseason, scoring touchdowns on all five of their offensive possessions with their first-team offense on the field. They had five possessions in the first half of this game and failed to produce a single first down.
The Steelers didn’t pick up their initial first down of the game until Najee Harris broke free down the sideline on third-and-1 for a 24-yard gain with 1:24 remaining in the first half.
The 49ers’ Deommodore Lenoir hit Harris after he had gone out of bounds and was assessed a 15-yard personal foul penalty, as well, pushing the ball to the San Francisco 47.
Later in the possession Lenoir was penalized for illegal contact on third down inside the 10, giving the Steelers an automatic first down with 13 seconds remaining in the half, and Pickett capitalized by connecting with tight end Pat Freiermuth for a 3-yard touchdown pass to trim San Francisco’s advantage to 20-7 going into the half.
Even with that 95-yard, 12-play scoring drive, the Steelers produced just 77 net offensive plays in the first half, displaying just how difficult the first 29 minutes of the first half had been.
While the Steelers’ offense was sputtering, San Francisco’s was taking advantage of some excellent field position and a Pickett interception to put 20 points on the board on a pair of Brock Purdy touchdown passes to Aiyuk and two Jake Moody field goals.
With their lead trimmed to 13 points after the Steelers’ late touchdown in the first half, the 49ers got the ball to open the second half. On their second play from scrimmage, running back Christian McCaffery took a handoff off the left side, spun out of a tackle attempt in the hole and started down the sideline in front of the Steelers bench. He picked up a big block from Aiyuk on safety Damontae Kazee and then went untouched into the end zone for a 65-yard touchdown run that increased San Francisco’s advantage to 27-7 early in the third quarter.
From there, it seemed only a matter of what San Francisco’s winning advantage would be.
To make matters worse, the Steelers suffered injuries in the game, losing defensive lineman Cam Heyward to a groin injury, defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal (elbow), Freiermuth (chest) and Diontae Johnson (hamstring) at various points in the game.
But T.J. Watt had different plans.
The 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year recorded his third sack of the game midway through the third quarter of Purdy, stripping the ball loose and recovering it.
That sack gave Watt 80.5 in his career, tying him with James Harrison for the most in team history. Watt also had five tackles and five quarterback hits in the game.
After driving to the San Francisco 8, however, Pickett’s fourth-down pass intended for Freiermuth, who had returned to the game at that point, fell incomplete, turning the ball over on downs.
That allowed the 49ers to turn things over to their running game, which produced 188 yards.
The Steelers were never able to establish a running game of their own, picking up just 41 yards on the ground on 10 carries.
That meant the Steelers’ offense went largely through Pickett, who finished with 232 passing yards but threw one touchdown against two interceptions.