The early window on the first NFL Sunday of the season is full of intriguing matchups and one that definitely fits that description very well is the 49ers visit to the Steelers which finds Pittsburgh and their head coach Mike Tomlin of being in the unusual position of being a home underdog although it’s only to the tune of -1.5 points.
Since Tomlin took over in 2007, the Steelers are the only team in the league with a winning outright record as an underdog (41-39). They are a league-best 49-28-3 ATS as an underdog in that span, including 25-11-2 ATS in the last five seasons.
The Steelers have not had a Week 1 game at home since 2014 and the game marks a meeting of two quarterbacks who were the first and last taken at that position in the 2022 draft some 242 picks apart. Brock Purdy (49ers) and Kenny Pickett (Steelers) now enter the game as the incumbent starting quarterback for their organizations, and each enter Sunday’s game with something to prove.
Pickett needs to show that he can carry on last season’s progress which reached a crescendo at the end of last season and to see if he can orchestrate a more explosive offence. Purdy has to show that his start for the 49ers wasn’t a fluke, San Francisco were 8-0 in the games that Purdy threw at least 20 passes, only losing with him against the Eagles after he injured his elbow on the opening drive, and he also needs to prove that he’s recovered from surgery on that injured elbow.
Needless to say, that in a very winnable NFC, there is a lot of expectation on the 49ers this season whereas the Steelers would be a wild card hopeful who are looking for their 20th straight non-losing season in an AFC stacked with exciting and progressive teams.
Last year Week 1 was a whacky and weird one for both teams with San Francisco on the road in Chicago losing to a team that finished 3-14 in a game played in watersplash conditions. The Steelers on the other hand were on the road in Cincinnati win 23-20 in overtime to the Bengals. Talking of overtime there were 20 games during last season that required OT and the Star Sports offer if you on a beaten team in this period applies throughout the season – always something to have on your side in a close game and this could be one such instance.
The standout unit for each of these franchises is undoubtedly their defences but that’s not to say we should ignore what they are capable of on offence.
For instance, San Francisco had 10 offensive plays of 50 or more yards in 2022, tied for the most in the NFL. However, with Purdy facing a Pittsburgh defensive front featuring the talents of T.J. Watt and Cameron Hayward amongst others he could be looking to get the ball out of his hands quickly and efficiently and the use of motion on the offence pre-snap will be a key for the 49ers. Just 14.9% of the San Francisco possessions were three plays and then a punt, the lowest rate in the NFL in 2022. The league average was 21.4%.
Christian McCaffrey although principally a running back is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL and with Purdy likely to have to use the ball quickly he could have a major role on quick hitting passes that can be extended by McCaffrey’s considerable ability in the open field. McCaffrey averaged 111.3 all-purpose yards and 1.1 TDs over his final 13 games for last year’s 49ers while earning a lofty 20.5% target share on throws from Purdy. McCaffrey will be backed up in the running game by Elijah Mitchell and it’s far easier to work out who will be the key players on the 49ers offence in the run game than it will in their passing offence which features and varied cast.
Tight end George Kittle, and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk give Purdy plenty of options if he can avoid the Steelers pass rush and step up in the pocket. Kittle was a good target for Purdy last year scoring seven touchdowns on only 34 targets. Aiyuk mainly through an injury hit Samuel season led the 49ers in targets (39), catches (27) and yards (349) on Purdy’s arm. Samuel this time around has looked in top shape in pre-season and against a Steelers secondary that has a lot of question to answer he could have a field day as he’s always a danger in turning a simple 5-10 yard catch into a big after the catch run.
Turning our attention to the Steelers offence where offensive coordinator Matt Canada has taken his fair share of brickbats and rightly so after these sort of statistics were pinned against his offence last year. Pittsburgh had just one offensive play of 50 or more yards in 2022, tied for the fewest in the NFL. Last season, the Steelers scored just two touchdowns from outside of the red zone, the fewest in the NFL. Only two teams since 2000 have scored fewer in a season with two other teams also scoring just two. Pittsburgh averaged 6.8 yards on their touchdowns in 2022. No team over the past 30 years has averaged fewer yards on touchdown plays. 42.9% of Pittsburgh touchdowns were via passing, the lowest rate in the league.
Of course, those numbers were recorded with a rookie quarterback in Kenny Pickett in control of the trainset and although Pickett did improve through last season he’s going to have to have continued that progression. The signs in preseason were promising as with Pickett on the field the offence was perfect scoring a touchdown on all five drives. But they need to become far more explosive than they have been in order to keep pace with elite teams such as the 49ers, the 49ers were routinely scoring 33-plus points after Purdy took over last year. Pittsburgh have the longest active streak in the league of 25 games without scoring more than 30 points.
If the defensive front of the Steelers is dangerous then the same unit for the 49ers is downright elite especially as it looks as though Nick Bosa will play just a few days after signing a monster contract extension of five years and worth $170 million. Add in Javon Hargrave who was acquired from the Eagles, Arik Armstead and second-round draft pick Drake Jackson and you have a formidable pass rush for Pickett to overcome.
Will Pickett be able to balance his offence and get his run game via Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren to set a platform? The answer to that may come in the shape of this statistic – the 49ers have one of the toughest run defences in the league. They allowed the fewest rushing yards (1,014) to running backs last season.
Canada will have to trust Pickett to get the ball out quickly and find his No1 receiver George Pickens who has the attributes to become a top wide receiver having gained 801 yards last year. Pickens will be joined at wide receiver by Diontae Johnson who last year set NFL records for the most targets and catches without a touchdown catch but is due for positive touchdown regression this year. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is an every down player and will be a vital safety blanket for Pickett.
These two teams have not met since 2019 when the Steelers had leads of 6-0, 13-10, and they took a 20-17 lead in the 4th quarter. However, the 49ers won 24-20 on a touchdown with just 1:15 left.
Tomlin’s underdog record and the fact that lopsided losses at home are rare for the Steelers as they’ve gone 15 straight games at home without a loss by more than seven points and have just two losses by more than seven points in their last 30 home games make this a tough Week 1 examination for San Francsico. However, by the same token the Steelers have had their offensive struggles and face a very tough 49ers defence with a quarterback who has still to fully convince. A tough game to call and any perceived value may just lie in the player performance markets.
BACK Christian McCaffrey to score a TD anytime 2pts at 10/11 (⭐
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BACK Deebo Samuel over +49.5 rushing yards 1pt at 10/11 (⭐
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PROFIT/LOSS (SEPT 2023): LOSS -1.22 points