5 for Friday: The edge is key in Steelers-49ers matchup

The last two NFL Defensive Players of the Year will be on the field Sunday when the Steelers host the 49ers in what will be a marquee matchup of what should be two of the NFL's top defenses again in 2023.

It's no secret how important Watt is to the Steelers.

After all, they're 1-10 without him since he joined the team as a first-round draft pick in 2017, including 1-6 without him last season.

By contrast, they are 12-5 with Watt in the past 17 games in which he's played, a stat that isn't all that surprising.

For example, the 49ers are just 5-10 when Bosa doesn't play. They are 34-14 in his career when he does play.

That record with and without Bosa is not quite to the extreme as the Steelers' record without Watt, but it's in the same neighborhood.

The reason is because those star edge rushers affect everything that happens around them.

The Steelers finished 25th in the NFL in pressure rate on passing plays last season at 29.8 percent. But when they had Watt on the field, that pressure rate was 35 percent, which would have ranked fifth in the NFL over the course of the full season.

For the 49ers and Bosa, the contrast was even more drastic.

San Francisco had an excellent 38.5 percent pressure rate with Bosa on the field last season. Without him on the field – he played 74 percent of San Francisco's defensive snaps in 2022 – that pressure rate fell to 20.9 percent. That would have ranked 32nd in the NFL over the full season.

That's what happens when you take an elite pass rusher out of the equation.

Even more extreme is San Francisco's ability to produce sacks without Bosa. Bosa led the NFL with 18.5 sacks in 2022. No other player on the team's roster had more than 5.0, and the 49ers as a team had just 44 overall, meaning Bosa accounted for 42 percent of his team's sacks.

He also had 48 of his team's 121 quarterback hits.

Premier edge rushers are the queens on the chess board when it comes to the NFL. And Watt and Bosa are premier rushers. Watt's career average of .89 sacks per game in his career is the highest in NFL history. Bosa is just behind Reggie White for fourth on the all-time list at .84 sacks per game.

Sunday's meeting between the Steelers and 49ers will mark the fifth time in the past 20 years that teams featuring the Defensive Player of the Year award winners from the previous two seasons will meet. In each of those matchups, the reigning winner of that award, in this case Bosa, has seen his team lose to the team featuring the player who won it the year before, in this case, Watt.

That bodes well for the Steelers, who have an advantage in this game considering they also have Alex Highsmith and Cam Heyward.

The 49ers added former Steelers defensive tackle Javon Hargrave in the offseason, but the Steelers' supporting cast up front is better.

• NFL.com's Cynthia Freelund, who is the NFL Network's analytics expert, had an interesting note in a piece she wrote for that site this week.

Freelund noted that she tracked Watt's first three steps during the Steelers' preseason game against the Bills and noted that he was faster in his get off and acceleration than he had been, on average, during his NFL Defensive Player of the Year season in 2021.

That could be very bad news for Steelers opponents this season.

Watt was never really healthy for the entire 2022 season. But he is now. And he might be better than ever.

"It's something I'm always working on," Watt said of his ability to get off the line of scrimmage quickly. "Obviously, it's not something I'm tracking. It's just a product of a good offseason, I guess. Trying to have a good get off is the No. 1 priority for all pass rushers. It's something I'm always going to work on."

And that quick get off and ability to get up to speed quickly is perhaps the most important thing for an edge rusher.

"Yeah," Watt said. "In order to rush the passer, you have to start with the get off. You have to have speed to scare the edge to make the tackle do what you want to have control. Otherwise, all you're really going to be able to do is bull rush all day and that's not fun. It usually doesn't work out too well."

• James Harrison moved past Jason Gildon as the Steelers' all-time sack leader in 2016, meaning Gildon held the record for 13 seasons.

Harrison's reign as the franchise's all-time sack leader won't last nearly that long.

Not only will Watt move past Harrison's franchise record of 80.5 sacks this season, but so will Cam Heyward.

In fact, Heyward might get there first

Entering this season, Heyward has 78.5 career sacks, while Watt has 77.5.

There's a good chance Harrison is third on the career sacks list by the end of September.

• As Steelers fans know, Diontae Johnson failed to catch a touchdown pass last season, despite catching 86 passes.

Of San Francisco's 20 touchdown passes allowed last season, 16 were hauled in by wide receivers. The 49ers also allowed 167.5 yards per game to opposing wideouts in 2022, the sixth-most in the NFL, despite having the league's stingiest defense.

Some of Johnson's lack of touchdown production can be attributed to the fact the Steelers just didn't throw that many touchdown passes as a team last season, having just 12 all season.

There also was some misfortune involved, as well. For example, Johnson was tackled at the 2-yard line after a 32-yard catch-and-run in the regular season finale against the Browns.

Johnson had 16 red zone targets, which led the Steelers in 2022, but of those, he only had five targets inside the 10 yard line, which was the same number as Najee Harris and second to tight end Pat Freiermuth's team-best six targets inside the 10.

But just the fact those numbers are so low is telling. For example, Kansas City's Travis Kelce and Minnesota's Justin Jefferson tied for the NFL lead with 19 targets each inside the 10. That's more than Freiermuth, Johnson and Harris combined. In fact, you have to throw in George Pickens' four targets inside the 10 before you finally account for more than the 19 for the Steelers.

Given Kenny Pickett's improvement across the board this offseason and San Francisco's trouble with opposing wide receivers, it wouldn't be surprising to see Johnson's touchdown-less streak end Sunday. And if not Sunday, soon.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• Pickett started and finished five games at Acrisure Stadium in 2022 with the Steelers going 4-1 in those starts. He had five total touchdowns (4 passing and 1 rushing) and threw just one interception as the Steelers averaged 22.8 points per game.

The only blemish was a 37-30 shootout loss to the Bengals in a game in which Pickett threw for 265 yards and a touchdown.

Yes, the 49ers had the league's top-rated defense in 2022 in terms of both scoring and yards allowed. But they also struggled in long road trips last season, losing at Chicago (19-10), Atlanta (28-14) and to Philadelphia (31-7) in the NFC Championship, while also winning at Carolina (37-15).

For the Steelers and Pickett, facing the 49ers in Pittsburgh isn't the worst thing in the world. After all, the previous two seasons, they opened at Buffalo and Cincinnati – and won both games.

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