When Brandon Aiyuk hauled in his second touchdown pass — a twisting 19-yard grab with Pittsburgh cornerback Patrick Peterson draped all over him — 90 seconds into the second quarter, the 49ers had 17 points and the Steelers had … 2 yards of total offense.
Things never really got better. There were no splash plays. No ripple plays either. The dynamic offense Pittsburgh wanted to unvei l against one of the best teams in the NFL never showed up. San Francisco’s relentless pressure and a shaky day by second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett never allowed it.
Pittsburgh won the opening toss and took the ball, an unusual move by coach Mike Tomlin, who usually prefers to let the defense set the tone. This time, he hoped the offense would do it instead.
The Steelers didn’t get their initial first down until less than two minutes remained in the half, at which point they trailed by 20 points.
“We wanted to get out fast, we didn’t do that,” Pickett said. “Obviously playing behind against a really good team, you’re putting yourself in a hole we can’t do. Moving forward, we can’t allow that to happen.”
Pickett completed 31 of 46 passes for 232 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, almost all of the yards coming after the game was essentially decided.
More troubling was a pair of errant throws that drifted wide of their intended targets and ended up in the hands of a San Francisco defender.
They were the kind of mistakes Pickett largely avoided during a second-half surge to end his rookie season a year ago. Last year, however, the Steelers made it a point to ask Pickett to simply not lose games so the defense could try to win them.
Things are supposed to be different in 2023. Pickett’s job isn’t to be a caretaker but a difference-maker. He wasn’t one on Sunday. Then again, nobody else wearing black and gold was either.
Pickett stressed it was just one game, and on that point he’s right. Cleveland visits Acrisure Stadium next Monday fresh off a dominant victory over two-time defending AFC North champion Cincinnati.
The Browns want to beat teams the same way the 49ers do: by playing a physical brand of football. Cleveland was wildly successful in disrupting Bengals star Joe Burrow. Now Myles Garrett and company get to spend the week watching the 49ers manhandling Pittsburgh’s offensive line and figuring out how they can do the same.
“Things are going to get fixed, need to get fixed quick,” Pickett said.
T.J. Watt remains T.J. Watt. The star outside linebacker tied James Harrison’s franchise record of 80 1/2 sacks when he chased down the 49ers’ Brock Purdy three times. Harrison needed 14 seasons in Pittsburgh to reach that total. Watt is just beginning his seventh.
The mark was of little solace, however, after the Steelers gave up 188 yards rushing, including 152 by Christian McCaffery.
“There’s so many more plays to be made out there, myself included,” Watt said.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Steelers beefed up the offensive line in the offseason, signing veteran guard Isaac Seumalo and selecting tackle Broderick Jones in the first round of the draft.
Pittsburgh failed to generate much push at all while giving up five sacks and managed just 41 yards rushing, 24 of them coming on Najee Harris’ burst up the right side late in the first half.
Maybe Allen Robinson’s tank isn’t empty. The wide receiver caught five passes for 64 yards, his most productive game since November 2021 while playing for the Chicago Bears. With Diontae Johnson’s status uncertain after he tweaked his right hamstring, Robinson seems poised to take on a larger role.
Peterson could be heading to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And while the eight-time Pro Bowler did swat away two passes on Sunday, he also was in the vicinity of the ball on all three San Francisco touchdowns. Not the best look for a player who predicted on his podcast he’d pick off Purdy at least once.
Longtime defensive captain Cam Heyward went down in the first quarter with a groin injury. Right tackle Chuks Okorafor could spend the week in the concussion protocol, possibly opening the door for Jones to make his first start. Defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal is dealing with an elbow issue.
1-4: Pittsburgh’s record in Week 2 games since 2018.
Try to find their footing against the Browns. The teams split the season series in 2022, with each club winning at home.