The Steelers will welcome the 49ers to Pittsburgh on Sunday in a matchup quickly gaining significant steam. It is the game that Pittsburgh wants to come on and prove themselves as a top group in the NFL, while the 49ers look to maintain their status as one of the best teams in the NFC. But how can the Steelers flip the narrative on their offense against a stacked 49ers group?
With the return of Nick Bosa, it will be more challenging for the Steelers to do much of anything without protecting up front. That is the key, especially if they want to expose the weakness that the 49ers may have on the back end of their defense. Warren Sharp discussed what the Steelers could do, and it became clear that Pittsburgh had to push the ball down the field.
When targeting the 49ers within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, there was not a defense better in the NFL last year in terms of EPA per attempt. However, their efficiency fell to 31st when the ball got pushed down the field past 15 yards. In other words, the bat signal just went out for George Pickens. Despite likely drawing Charvarius Ward, Pickens has been the explosive play element of the Steelers offense that they have missed for so long.
🗣️ the Steelers NEED to attack deep
last year the 49ers pass D splits based on target depth:
passes < 15 yards downfield?
#1 (-0.10 EPA/att)
passes 15+ yards downfield?
#31 (+0.71 EPA/att)
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 9, 2023
Ward, Deommodore Lenoir, and Ambry Thomas against Pickens, Diontae Johnson, and Allen Robinson II favor the Steelers in different ways for each matchup. This becomes glaring if Ward doesn’t play due to a heel injury. Ward and Pickens is a heavyweight fight, Johnson should have a mismatch no matter who he faces. Meanwhile, Robinson’s savviness and even Calvin Austin’s speed give the Steelers much to play with here.
Bosa’s presence, along with Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave up front, changes what the Steelers will do. That could incline them to do more things with quick games, but that seems to go against what the weaknesses of the 49ers are right off the bat. So, Matt Canada will have to dial up an exotic gameplan to make sure his offense can make some plays against a star-studded defense.