It would not have been a stretch to have pointed to San Francisco as the best team on the Steelers regular season schedule, and the supporting argument could have focused on either their recent record or on the difference-making talent sprinkled liberally all over their offensive and defensive depth charts.
In the previous four seasons, the 49ers had won an NFC Championship and played for that title two other times while winning 42 of those 66 regular season games. And their 2023 roster contained the perfect running back for the way the game is now played, plus a guy who's in the discussion as one of the best edge rushers in football, combined with a guy who's on the short list of the best all-situations off-the-ball linebackers in the league. In fact, probably the best chance a team would have to deal with Christian McCaffrey would include Fred Warner blanketing him while Nick Bosa was pressuring the quarterback who was trying to get him the ball in critical situations.
Add in some playmaking, physical wide receivers along with having no glaring holes on either the offensive or defensive lines, and what the Steelers were facing was a legitimate Super Bowl contender in their first real game out of the gate.
But OK, challenge accepted. In their own recent history, the Steelers had come out of the gate and raced to road victories against Buffalo in 2021 and Cincinnati in 2022 – both very much deserving of the Super Bowl contender label –and so it wasn't as though they were going to be blinded by the bright lights or distracted by the headliners dotting the opposing roster. The Steelers had gone at each other throughout training camp and the preseason, and those sessions were physical and often evenly competitive. They sure looked to be a team on the rise.
The 49ers were what they were supposed to be, and because the Steelers were not, the result was a 30-7 defeat for the home team.
"Disappointing day for us," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "Not how we wanted to perform. While at the same time, you've got to compliment those guys because it unfolded in a manner in which they desired."
To get specific with how the game unfolded the way the 49ers desired, the Steelers went three-and-out on their first five offensive possessions, while the 49ers went touchdown, field goal, touchdown, field goal, punt. Even after the Steelers drove 95 yards to score a touchdown with 10 seconds left in the second quarter, the 49ers still had a 20-7 lead at halftime.
"I thought they did a really good job of staying on schedule on offense and being in manageable third downs that allowed them to win enough of those (situations)," said Tomlin. "On the other side of the ball, we didn't win enough possession downs to be competitive. You can't start games 0-for-5 on third down and think you're going to have the type of day that you desire. You've got to win the weighty downs."
Simultaneously while the Steelers were 0-for-5 on third downs, the 49ers ran 40 offensive plays and only faced third down four times, three of which they converted with one of those three coming on a fourth down. And by then, the deficit was 20-0.
"It's more than just kind of identifying that component," said Tomlin. "It was a failure on our part in all areas. We've got to coach better. We've got to play better. We talked about a lot of the things and worked on a lot of the things that unfolded in the ways that we didn't want them to, and so we go back to the drawing board.
A typical scenario all across the NFL finds the outcomes of games often determined by which team gets the better of the quarterback play. What happened on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium will be remembered as a game where the 49ers got the better of the quarterback vs. quarterback matchup primarily because their guy did a better job of making the routine plays routinely.
Brock Purdy completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 220 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rating of 111.3. In doing so, Purdy became the first quarterback in NFL history to win each of his first six career regular-season starts and throw at least two touchdown passes in each start, and the first quarterback in NFL history with a passer rating of 95-or-higher in each of his first six career regular-season starts.
For his part, Kenny Pickett had one of the worst showings of his young NFL career. Statistics aside, Pickett never seemed to get comfortable in the pocket and was unable to capitalize on his mobility and knack for throwing on the move to establish any rhythm. Video study could reveal instances when he didn't see it and others where he was off target. He was under pressure and took some hits, and there must be allowances made for that, too.
"I think it was more about us than them," said Pickett. "I felt comfortable in what I was seeing and what they were doing. We just didn't execute like we needed to."
What we had been seeing all offseason from the offense with Pickett operating as the trigger-man was a unit that was decisive, efficient, one that made plays in significant moments. Except for a 12-play, 95-yard drive that ended in the final 10 seconds of the first half with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Pat Freiermuth, that didn't happen nearly often enough against the 49ers.
"We accept responsibility for the outcome," said Tomlin. "We compliment those guys on the quality of work that they did. We absorb the negativity that comes with how we performed today, and we go back to work."
There will be negativity, because the nature of the business often finds that fans are eager to assign blame and the media will contribute grand pronouncements and sweeping conclusions before a representative sample size even exists. Maybe it's deserved and maybe it's not, but all of it is potentially distracting to the people who actually have the ability to affect positive change.
"We've got to prepare them better. They've got to play better. That's just the reality of it," said Tomlin. "We got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways."
All true. But so is this: It's a long season. Things can get fixed. It's not going to be easy. And as Dick LeBeau said after a similarly disappointing loss to Dallas in the 1994 opener at Three Rivers Stadium, "I've seen sicker dogs than this get well and turn out OK."
It's up to the Steelers to summon their recuperative juices and apply them in a timely fashion. The good news is that there are 16 more games over the next 17 weeks. But after watching what happened on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, that could be the bad news, too.