The San Francisco 49ers opened up the 2023 campaign on the road, traveling to the Steel City for their Week 1 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team will return to The Bay with a 1-0 record following their 30-7 win over the black and yellow.
"It opened up as good as you could hope for," head coach Kyle Shanahan said. "It was 28 minutes of really good football... Then we came out (for the second half) got the ball and answered on the first drive. It was pretty smooth sailing from there."
Purdy Good Offense
San Francisco's offense was rolling in the season opener putting up points in six of their 12 offensive series. Much like defensive lineman Drake Jackson's sack got the defensive unit going early, quarterback Brock Purdy's eight-yard touchdown throw to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk on the first offensive series set the tone for the game. He later connected with Aiyuk for the second touchdown of the day.
"I was excited that we put that (first) drive together. Everything was sort of clicking, you know?" Purdy said. "Defense did their thing. We put a drive together and to cap it off like that (with a touchdown), to start the season, it's going to be good."
The second-year quarterback moved the 49ers offense down the field efficiently against the Steelers, and Purdy finished the day completing 19-of-29 passes for 220 yards, two touchdowns and 111.3 passer rating.
Do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey led the charge on the ground, rushing 22 times for 152 yards and a touchdown in addition to three catches for 17 yards through the air. His play of the day was a 65-yard rush for a touchdown to open up the second half and give the 49ers the 27-7 advantage. Aiyuk and Ray-Ray McCloud III came in clutch with two key blocks down the left sideline to clear the path for McCaffrey to the end zone.
"It was awesome blocking. You know those guys up front, that whole run game, It's an 11-man job," McCaffrey said. "They made great blocks. I got a little spin in there, got sprung and then, man, Aiyuk and Ray-Ray downfield - when you have receivers that block like that, it's a special feeling for a running back. You truly feel like your guys have your back, and that's an awesome feeling to have when you're out there."
The League's Reigning No. 1 Overall Defense Starts Hot
Complementary football was the name of the game on Sunday. San Francisco's defense made splash plays at every level and nearly shut out Pittsburgh's offense in the first half. Prior to the final two minutes of the second quarter, the Steelers were without a first down.
Some of the big defensive playmakers included defensive lineman Drake Jackson who racked up three sacks on the day, All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner and safety Talanoa Hufanga had a tackle-for-loss each and Charvarius Ward and Talanoa Hufanga both intercepted Pickett.
Solid red zone defense late in the third quarter helped force a turnover on downs and kept the Steelers scoreless in the final two frames.
A Revamped D-Line Debut
The 49ers front office set out to restore SF's defensive line to the gold standard set by the 2019 Super Bowl LIV team this offseason, bringing in Javon Hargrave and Clelin Ferrell to join forces with reigning DPOY Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and a slew of returners. That group debuted in a big way against the Steelers.
Ferrell got things started with a tackle-for-loss on the first play of the game, and Jackson followed up with a sack of Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett on third down for a loss of ten yards. San Francisco's quick three-and-out had the entire defense on a roll early, and the D-line continued to roll out the highlights.
Following the 49ers second touchdown-scoring drive, Ferrell notched a quarterback hit and two plays later, Jackson got home again, sacking Pickett at third-and-20 to force another Pittsburgh punt. He added his third sack in the fourth quarter.
"My coach Johnny Holland always says, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get,'" Warner. "That's to say, we don't believe in luck. I believe in hard work and reaping what you sow, and (Jackson) has worked his tail off all offseason. For him to come out and have a game like that, it's such a big confidence boost to himself. We're going to need it all season."
Picks in Pittsburgh
Veteran cornerback Charvarius Ward, who was questionable to play heading into the weekend, notched the 49ers first interception of the 2023 season. Ward picked off Pickett on the Steelers second offensive series and recorded a nine-yard return to set San Francisco up on the Pittsburgh 48 yard line. The 49ers turned that takeaway into points, driving 37 yards down the field to set up Jake Moody's second field goal of the day.
Hufanga intercepted Pickett in the fourth quarter and during the return picked up an illegal forward pass penalty after tossing the ball to Tashaun Gipson Sr. Regardless, the turnover set the 49ers up for another score on the ensuing drive.
Brandon Aiyuk Hauls in Two TDs
For the third-time in his four NFL seasons, Aiyuk logged a two-score outing. The wideout's first eight-yard touchdown capped off San Francisco's first seven-play, 54-yard offensive series. Aiyuk broke ankles to get open in the back of the end zone to make that grab.
As impressive as that catch may have been, he topped it early in the second quarter. Purdy connected with Aiyuk on a back-shoulder pass to the right front corner of the end zone. With a Steelers defender all over him, No. 11 got both feet down for the 19-yard score.
Aiyuk was the 49ers reception yards leader in the opener, catching 8 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns.
Kicker Jake Moody Stays Perfect in the Steel City
The rookie kicker successfully worked his way back from a right quad strain he suffered in the week leading up to the 49ers preseason finale. Moody was perfect in his NFL regular season debut going three-for-three on field goal attempts from 41, 32 and 40 yards out. He also sailed three PATs through the uprights in San Francisco's opener.