Thursday, Rob gave us five players to watch for Sunday’s game. Let’s talk about some of the most intriguing matchups for the San Francisco 49ers home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. the middle of the 49ers defense
I don’t want to say, K’Waun Williams, because if Jimmie Ward can go, you have to think the coaching staff will do everything they can to get Ward on the field. Also, don’t rule out Jason Verrett playing nickel. JuJu has played 57% of his snaps this season in the slot, and it’s a safe assumption he’ll be there on Sunday. Smith-Schuster does the majority of his work in between the numbers. Seven of his 11 receptions have come over the middle of the field. We can probably add Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner to the list of 49ers that will match up with JuJu.
The important thing for the Niners defense is to tackle Smith-Schuster before he gets going. The Steelers have tried to get the ball to him quickly so he can run after the catch. Eight of his 11 receptions came under ten yards. No freebies should be this weekend’s motto when going head-to-head against the talented receiver. Make him prove that he can beat physical, press coverage.
Mike McGlinchey vs. T.J. Watt
Arguably the best matchup from this game. Two talented young players that are coming into their own. One of McGlinchey’s biggest question marks headed into his second season was pass protection. In two games, he’s only been beaten once in pass protection. He does have three penalties, so you don’t want that to become a theme. McGlinchey looks a lot more comfortable early on this season.
Watt has only rushed two times this season against left tackles. He’s quickly turning into one of the best edge rushers in the league. Watt is one of the league leaders in total pressures through two weeks. He comes after you snap after snap, so McGlinchey will have to be ready. Last week against the Seahawks, Watt had a sack-fumble. When he gets close, he’s going for the ball, like most top-notch pass rushers. We’ll see how improved McGlinchey is on Sunday.
George Kittle vs. the Steelers LBs
The Steelers love to get in your face and play man coverage. They drafted speedy Michigan linebacker Devin Bush to improve over the middle of the field. Pittsburgh also relies on undersized “linebacker” Mark Barron heavily as well. Against Seattle, those two were targeted a combined ten times, to give up ten receptions for 111 yards. My condolences. Here is what is going to happen. Play-action, Kittle has a step, Kittle avoids a tackle, Kittle runs for a huge gain. Rinse. Repeat. Bush is going to be a very good player in this league, but this is a difficult matchup for even the most experienced defenders in the NFL.
I’ll be watching to see where Kyle Shanahan deploys Kittle from. He’s predominantly an inline tight end, but we see him bump out to the slot, and sometimes even on the outside. I like him as an inline tight end so he has space and can run away from linebackers. Sunday should be a Kittle game.
Steelers OL vs. 49ers pass rush
The Steelers have had one of the better offensive lines the past few seasons, and through two games in 2019, that’s still been the case. This season they’ve only allowed one sack and one quarterback hit. That’s impressive. I thought the 49ers defensive line had a significant talent advantage in the first two weeks. That won’t be the case this weekend. You know about Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, but their left tackle Alejandro Villanueva has been keeping Big Ben upright for years.
A healthy Dee Ford would have been nice in this game so that the 49ers could move him and Nick Bosa around and put them on the same side. He practiced on Friday, so that’s a good sign. I imagine he gives it a go. The 49ers have had success because they’ve been able to get production out of just about everyone they trot out on the field.
Ronald Blair is another defensive lineman I'm not letting out the door. Through two games:— Rob Lowder (@Rob_Lowder) September 20, 2019
6 total tackles
3 tackles for loss
1 quarterback it
36 total tackles
10 tackles for loss
14 quarterback hits
Going into a game knowing that you’re going to get production out of your “other” pass rushers has to be a good feeling for Robert Saleh and the company. If that continues Sunday, the 49ers will come away victorious.