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Steelers emphasize solid tackling against 49ers

The Steelers hold more physical training camp practices than many other teams, with live tackling once they get through the acclimation period.

Head coach Mike Tomlin also played his defensive starters more than some other teams in the preseason, as well, this year.

It might have all been in preparation for what the Steelers will face in Week 1 when they host the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium to open the 2023 regular season.

The 49ers represent a huge challenge to any defense with their collection of skill position players, highlighted by the fact that 57.4 percent of their passing yards last season came as a result of players running after the catch – the highest total in the NFL.

"The best in the league," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Thursday of the 49ers and their ability to create yards after the catch.

"When they do catch it – we know they're gonna catch some balls – we have to rally to it. We have to make sure in terms of when we come, we're wrapped tackling guys, we're not trying to bump people down. We're not just trying to cut them down. We have to wrap tackle, and we have to have multiple guys get there to the ball to keep them and keep the yards after catch to a minimum."

The thing is, the 49ers' opponents in 2022 knew that, as well, and still struggled to make it happen.

In running back Christian McCaffery, tight end George Kittle, wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, the 49ers have skill position players who can stress a defense at every level.

And they do so by seldom taking those players off the field. For example, Juszczyk played 522 snaps in 16 games last season as a fullback in a league where many teams don't even employ a fullback on their roster.

The 49ers also make use of McCaffery's excellent receiving skills, as well, putting him on the field at the same time as another runner, then splitting him out wide to create mismatches.

So, with a fullback and tight end on the field or two running backs on the field together, the typical defensive plan would be to play a heavier package.

But doing that against San Francisco could be deadly.

Austin is going to have his hands full against 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan's offensive scheming.

As a result, the Steelers put all five of San Francisco's eligible receivers in special jerseys on their scout team this week. Those special jerseys typically highlight an upcoming opponent's top two or three players.

"You have these guys highlighted because you have to know who's getting the ball and the danger that they bring when they do get the ball," Austin said. "So that's probably why we had all the jerseys on there. Because you've got to know where Kittle is. You better know where Deebo is. You better know, I can go on and on."

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

The Steelers prepare for the Week 1 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers

That on-field chess match will be critical in this matchup as the Steelers try to limit the 49ers.

Shutting them down might not be possible. But the Steelers have to win enough on first and second down to get the 49ers into third-and-long and unleash their pass rush with T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and others.

That, in itself, also will be a challenge.

Left tackle Trent Williams is considered the best in the NFL at his position, offering Highsmith a challenging matchup. Highsmith, however, had a career-high 14.5 sacks last season.

"We think we've got two really good ones too," Austin said. "And, and so we're expecting Alex to win his share. We know Williams is going to win some and but we expect Alex to win his share and we expect TJ to do what TJ does. 

"And you know, maybe we'll have a couple of schematic things that try to help us where we can get some one-on-ones, but we also feel like we have some guys inside that can give us some balance in that rush. You know with Cam (Heyward) and Larry (Ogunjobi) and (DeMarvin Leal) and those guys in there, we feel pretty good about our rush and the things we can do. The question is, you know do we do we get them in third down situations and passing situations where we can use those guys?"

The answer is tackling well.

"It'll be a heck of a test for all of our defensive guys," Austin said.