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Steelers Pregame Primer: Keys to Victory, Prediction vs. 49ers



Steelers Browns Calvin Austin
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Calvin Austin III returns a punt against the Buffalo Bills, Aug. 19, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — We’ve hashed and rehashed every angle for the Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 season, and it’s time for the football to start when the Black and Gold take the field at Acrisure Stadium Sunday afternoon against the San Francisco 49ers.

I’m already on the record as predicting a Steelers victory in the opener as part of my Steelers season prediction. But how, and what will be the keys to this week’s game? Let’s dive in.

Gameday: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers, 1 p.m.

KEY TO VICTORY: Make Brock Purdy sweat.

The film on the second-year San Francisco quarterback is exceptional. He runs head coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme exceptionally well and just doesn’t make mistakes.

But this will be his first game back from UCL surgery, and he played just 11 snaps in the preseason, so he probably hasn’t been hit a lot recently. Meanwhile, T.J. Watt will be facing off against Colton McKivitz, a West Virginia product who will be a first-time starter at right tackle this year. Watt will have a huge advantage in that matchup, and he’ll need to exploit it and get Purdy uncomfortable early and often.

OVERLOOKED MATCHUP: Kyle Juszczyk vs. Teryl Austin

OK, stay with me here for a second. Juszczyk played 50% of San Francisco’s offensive snaps last season. The presence of a fullback, with two wide receivers on the field, generally prompts the Steelers to play their base 3-4 defense.

But the flexibility of Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel as a wide receiver that does running back things and a running back that does wide receiver things throws a wrench in that plan.

If the Steelers go base, and then the 49ers flex McCaffrey and George Kittle out of the formation, that means safeties and linebackers covering in space. Austin will need an answer that blends the ability to cover the special 49ers eligibles with being able to match heavier packages.

BOLD PREDICTION: The Steelers get splash in special teams.

The key connection between the Steelers’ Week 1 upset of the Buffalo Bills in 2021 and the Cincinnati Bengals in 2022 was splash on special teams. Miles Killebrew blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown in Buffalo. Minkah Fitzpatrick gave the Steelers a stay of execution in Cincinnati with a blocked extra point.

This season, I’ll say that splash comes courtesy of punt returner Calvin Austin III. Austin was dynamic in the preseason, but I think not kicking to him might be a lesson NFL teams need to learn in a game that counts first. He set up short scoring drives on two of the staring offense’s five preseason possessions. Here’s betting he does it again, if not taking one all the way to the house.


Steelers 27, 49ers 24

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