Lolley's 10 Thoughts: 49ers followed their star

There was nothing complementary about the football the Steelers played Sunday at Acrisure Stadium in their 30-7 loss to the San Francisco 49ers to open the 2023 regular season.

The offense couldn't stay on the field. The defense couldn't get off of it when it mattered. And special teams weren't good enough to help overcome either of those two issues.

Against good – strike that, very good – teams, that will get you beaten pretty handily in the NFL.

"It was a failure on our part in all areas," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin conceded. "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 microcosm of this game came in the first three offensive plays for each team, which were identical in nature, but not in results.

The Steelers took the opening kickoff and had Kenny Pickett complete a short pass to George Pickens over the middle for a 6-yard gain. But on second down, a shovel pass to Calvin Austin went for a 1-yard loss. Pickett was then sacked for a 10-yard loss on third down and the Steelers were forced to punt.

After the 34-yard kick, which sailed out of bounds at the San Francisco 46, Brock Purdy completed a 6-yard pass over the middle to Deebo Samuel. Samuel then gained 3 yards on an end around to set up third-and-1.

Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 1 game against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium

The Steelers stacked the line of scrimmage and stopped Christian McCaffrey for no gain going over the top on third down. But with the ball already on the Pittsburgh side of the field, the 49ers went for it on fourth down and Purdy completed and 11-yard pass to tight end George Kittle to maintain possession.

Three plays later, Purdy completed an 8-yard pass for a touchdown to Brandon Aiyuk after Patrick Peterson slipped coming off the line of scrimmage to make it 7-0, putting the Steelers in chase mode the remainder of the game.

Poor execution on offense was then exacerbated by a poor punt and then by poor execution on defense.

"We've got to win the weighty downs. Everyone has to win the weighty downs. That's just the lifeblood of ball possession, and we didn't do a good enough job on either side, but particularly how we started offensively," Tomlin said. "Not good."

No, not good indeed.

The Steelers failed to record a single first down on their first five possessions, going three-and-out all five times. Meanwhile, the defense didn't get a weighty stop on the 49ers first four possessions, leading to a 20-0 deficit.

That's deadly against any NFL opponent, but even more so against a team as good as the 49ers.

• Anyone saying running backs don't matter after watching this game didn't really watch the game.

McCaffrey is a difference-maker at the running back position.

Quick as a cat, McCaffrey finished this game with 22 carries for 152 yards and also had three receptions for another 17.

His 65-yard touchdown run early in the second half was a back-breaker.

As bad as things were in the first half, the Steelers put together a 12-play, 95-yard touchdown drive in the closing seconds to draw within two scores at 20-7 going into the locker room.

Two plays into the second half, McCaffrey took a handoff off left end, pulled off a spin move to leave would-be tacklers grasping at air, then raced down the sideline for a 65-yard, back-breaking touchdown that made it 27-7.

"Obviously, he's one of the best backs in the league," said Steelers defensive back Levi Wallace. "They do a good job. A lot of times, he doesn't get touched until he's at the next level. But he has really good vision, too. You give a guy like that a lot of credit, year-in and year-out, especially when he's healthy, he's super dynamic.

"He's a great back."

It's no coincidence San Francisco's offense took off after acquiring McCaffrey last season.

McCaffrey was the real difference in this game. He was the shining star. The 49ers followed his lead.

• So, where do the Steelers go from here?

Perhaps back to the drawing board a little, but you do have to trust the process.

They couldn't have played much worse as a group in this game, while the 49ers were clicking. That happens in the NFL.

But they can't allow this one loss to linger. Corrections and adjustments obviously have to be made. And it stinks that Cam Heyward (groin), Diontae Johnson (hamstring) and Chuks Okorafor (concussion protocol), among others, left this game.

That, however, is life in the NFL. And it's one big reason the Steelers worked so hard this offseason to build depth on their roster.

More importantly, it's veteran depth, which will understand that this is just one game and losing it does not make you ineligible for the bowl championship series or playoffs.

"We look ourselves in the mirror," said veteran defensive back Patrick Peterson. "We know that a lot of those plays were on us. It was communication, not being in the right spot. Whatever it was, we look ourselves in the mirror. When we come back (Monday) and try to clean this up, we have enough veterans, not only in the secondary, but on the defense as a total, it's going to come down to us counting on each other, relying on each other, to do your assignment. That will help us."

In other words, this won't be a group that panics and tries to do too much. That's when mistakes really start to turn into an avalanche of errors.

• Peterson made headlines last week on his podcast when he said there were "tells" to what the 49ers do offensively.

Of course, the San Francisco media made a big deal about that after this game when speaking with second-year quarterback Brock Purdy.

Peterson slipped at the line of scrimmage on Purdy's first touchdown throw to Brandon Aiyuk, then got outwrestled for the football in the air on the second by Aiyuk, who made a tremendous play to not only pull the ball away, but somehow get both feet down in bounds.

"He's a competitor," Purdy said of Peterson. "I have nothing but respect for Patrick Peterson and anything he does."

That said, Peterson did have two of the Steelers' five pass breakups in this game, jumping underneath receivers on crossing routes to get his hands on the ball.

He just didn't come away with the interceptions.

"No. It was there," Peterson said of the San Francisco "tells." "I had an opportunity to get two picks. I just didn't grab it in. Credit to those guys. Those guys did a great job of sticking to their game plan and getting into their identity, which is running the football, midsirection, hit those deep stops. That's just what they do."

That's the thing about having a good idea what is coming. That happens all the time in the NFL. Players study film religiously, and there's not a player or offense that doesn't have its tendencies. But good execution works every time.

Knowing something is coming and stopping it can be two different things.

• The Steelers would have liked to have gone to more of a no-huddle, hurry-up look earlier in the first half of this game rather than waiting until their sixth possession to do so. But they couldn't pick up a first down before that to have the opportunity to do so.

"We wanted to maybe go with a little rhythm," said center Mason Cole. "But we couldn't stay on the field to do it."

They also never really got a chance to put together any running game of their own. Najee Harris had six carries for 31 yards – 24 of which came on one run – while Jaylen Warren had three carries for 6 yards.

There was nothing there to help take any pressure off the passing game – unlike what San Francisco was able to do.

• The 49ers had just four receivers catch passes in this game. Four. And McCaffrey and tight end George Kittle had just six combined receptions for 36 yards.

But Aiyuk was seemingly open whenever Purdy wanted him. He was targeted eight times, catching all eight for 129 yards.

"I was covering him a couple times today," said Wallace. "He's a good receiver. They just had a good scheme against us and we didn't make the plays we needed to make.

"They ran a couple of more out breakers than we were expecting. But we've got to make the plays. When we get them into third down, we've got to get off the field, and we didn't do that today."

The key was San Francisco's ability to move the ball, particularly on first downs. San Francisco had 17 first downs that came before McCaffrey's 65-yard run – on first down – made the score 27-7. Of those, nine gained four or more yards. Most gained well over that.

San Francisco was able to stay on schedule. And it affected how the second level played.

"They would get the linebackers to step up and then hit those passes behind them," said Peterson.

That was where Aiyuk, in particular, did his damage.

"We can't allow people to catch the ball on us like that," Wallace said. "We've got to do better on the back end. At the same time, we can't allow them to run the ball at will. It makes the game a whole lot harder."

• As bad as the defense was as a whole, T.J. Watt looks to be back to full strength as a one-man game wrecker.

He had three sacks and two forced fumbles, one of which he recovered and the other one that should have been a recovery by Watt.

This game marks the first time in more than three decades of covering the NFL that I've seen a player get credit for recovering a fumble by pinning it to his back with both hands while another player – in this case, Watt – has both hands on the ball in front of him.

But that's what appears to have happened on a fumble by Purdy in the second quarter.

"It was strange. The ball didn't really feel loose, and then I felt like I was -- as I was recovering it, someone jumped in and kind of made the ball go back to him," Watt said. "It was just a strange play in general. I don't know."

• At the end of the day – and of the season, for that matter – this is just one game.

It was one really bad game across the board, but it doesn't have to define this team or this season.

Everything that could have gone right for the 49ers, did. Everything that could have gone wrong for the Steelers, did.

When Pickett missed on a pass or wasn't on the same page as his receivers, the ball fell incomplete or was intercepted. When Purdy was off target, somehow his guys managed to make a catch.

Sometimes, that happens.

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

The Steelers have played some clunkers in openers in the past and gone on to have good seasons.

They have had some great games in openers and gone on to have sub-par seasons.

But it's the opener. And after waiting all offseason, it seems like such a letdown to see the team play like it did Sunday.

The Steelers can still be a good football team this season. They just weren't a good football team in this game.

"We've got to coach better. We've got to play better," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "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.

"We accept responsibility obviously for the outcome."

• One positive of how this thing worked out was that all six rookie draft picks who suited up for this game got their first exposure to playing in the NFL.

Hey, give me a break. I'm looking for something, anything that was positive in this game.

• You can't, after all, dwell on the negative.

The NFL, as former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher used to say, is a marathon, not a sprint.

There are plenty of teams feeling good about themselves after a victory in Week 1, next week's opponents, the Cleveland Browns, among them.

But a victory in one week means nothing in the next, the same way a loss one week isn't the end of the road – unless it happens in an elimination game.