PITTSBURGH — The Steelers started their prep work for the 49ers on Monday and looked forward to some of the key matchups in the game. With the first practice towards that over, what did we learn about how the team views the 49ers and where they are going from here?
Preparing for Bosa
Nick Bosa may not have a contract yet and has yet to report to San Francisco, but the Steelers do not care. On Monday, they did business as usual, assuming that Bosa would play and get the contract done. Dan Moore Jr. went as far as to say that the team is not even paying attention to the contract situation. If Bosa does not play, that would be a fortunate break for Pittsburgh. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year wants to get somewhere around Aaron Donald’s money.
“Nah, we’re not paying attention,” Moore said. “We expect him to be in-stadium on Sunday.”
So, what makes Bosa such an effective pass rusher? Well, it is a little bit of everything for a guy at his level. But his ability to turn speed into power sticks out as a big sticking point for someone like Moore, who has struggled to anchor against those power rushers in the past. He is on high alert as they prepare for him.
“He’s a really handsy guy,” Moore said. “Fantastic at converting speed-to-power, he can do a little bit of everything. You have to be on high alert.”
The team will continue to prepare for Bosa up to the final day. It seems like the deal is getting closer to being finished, but since it is Monday and Bosa’s not around, the situation grows more perilous for the 49ers by the day.
Alex Highsmith Takes on Trent Williams
After receiving his big contract this offseason, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith will have a chance to prove that he has once again leveled up. He faces maybe the best tackle in football in Trent Williams, who has all the athleticism and technique to go with those tools. Since coming into the NFL, he has been on an absolute tear of a run and will be a future Hall of Famer. So, that is stark competition for Highsmith, but coming off a wildly productive season, he hopes to prove he has taken another leap from that level.
“This is going to be a good matchup, you know I’m excited to face one of the best guys in the league,” Highsmith said. “Going against him is going to be a fun matchup. So, it’s big for me to show I can compete with the big dogs. Watching tape, you can see how good he is, and I’m excited to compete against him, study his tendencies on tape and go from there.”
Highsmith has a great chance to prove his repertoire is even more profound than it was a year ago. In training camp, Highsmith ended up virtually unblockable. I expect that he will repeat last year’s performance, and having a strong showing against Williams would be an excellent way to begin that.
Defending Wide Zone
The Kyle Shanahan scheme thrives on wide zone runs and working that off the rest of the offense from route concepts to play action. Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell create a formidable duo of running backs, and with some great blockers on the edge, they can clear out some lanes on that edge. Highsmith talked about the importance of the edge rushers holding up their end of the bargain and charging on the backside of plays.
“I think it’s important not only to set the outside but to not create wide lanes,” Highsmith said. “With a guy like McCaffrey, he’s such a downhill runner, and if you don’t set that edge and give him wide open lanes he’s going to find that lane. We have to really set that edge and make him create lanes rather than giving those wide open lanes.”
Steelers LB Elandon Roberts has experience playing in Miami against an offshoot of Shanahan’s offense in Mike McDaniel’s scheme. The wide zone scheme is a common one across the NFL, with all the influences from Shanahan and Sean McVay around the NFL. So, this is not some unique challenge regarding the scheme, but personnel could offer some challenges.
“I’m looked at as a run-stopping guy and I take pride in it,” Roberts said. “We have to stay clean and flow. At the end of the day, I’m ready to adjust to whatever style offense we go against. This week, that’s the 49ers and what they bring. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
On the day Steelers QB Kenny Pickett earned his first NFL captainship, Cam Heyward had many great things to say about Pickett and how far he has come as a leader. For a guy who stepped into the role in the middle of last year, Pickett brings unique intangible qualities to the game of football. But how does he command the room? Heyward offered a little of introspection into that minute detail.
“Kenny is just a kid who continues to work his tail off,” Heyward said. “Whether it’s offseason, in season, communication, he has grown leaps and bounds from last year. With that there is a leadership role. Whether that’s challenging guys on the field, holding guys accountable, working on your communication, having the dialogue back and forth with your guys. That is what a leader should be.”
Moore talked about the leadership that Pickett brings to the table. Sometimes, a magnetism about guys, specifically at the quarterback position, allows those guys to galvanize a room around them. Pickett maintains those qualities, and Moore is not inherently sure what drives the room to follow him and wants to run through a brick wall with those guys. The Steelers have that at quarterback.
“The way he approaches each day, the way he grasps the offense, he really has a voice. I talk to a lot of guys about it. Kenny has ‘it.’ I don’t know what that ‘it’ is, but he has it,” Moore said.
Pickett now has to take the off-field and pair it with the on-field, but there is little doubt that the team has his back. Every single day the Steelers take the field, Pickett looks like the natural leader of that unit. That’s how a quarterback should look at any time.