Week 1 has been an annual struggle for the San Francisco 49ers under Kyle Shanahan. San Francisco is a paltry 2-4 in Week 1 during his six-year tenure as head coach. In some cases, Week 1 has served as a harbinger of sorts for how the season would unfold. Overall, the team has come out looking flat and sloppy in Week 1.
2017: Smoked by the Carolina Panthers 23-3 at home en route to a dismal 6-10 record in Shanahan’s inaugural season
2018: Lost 24-16 in an ugly, mistake-laden game in Minnesota, lowlighted by three Jimmy Garoppolo interceptions and an Alfred Morris fumble. Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3 and the 49ers plummeted to a 4-12 record–their worst under Kyle Shanahan.
2019: Won 31-17 on the road in Tampa in a bout that was much closer than what the final score suggests. San Francisco went on to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 2012.
2020: Lost a tight contest to Arizona 24-20 in an eerily empty Levi’s Stadium to open “the COVID season.” The injury marred Niners would stumble to a 6-10 record.
2021: Staved off an absolutely absurd late-game surge in Detroit to win 41-33. The Lions scored 16 points, recovered an onside kick, and forced a Deebo Samuel fumble in the final two minutes, driving all the way to the 49er 24-yard line with a chance to equalize an 8-point deficit before flaming out. The Niners overcame a poor first half of the season to storm toward a playoff berth and NFC Championship appearance.
2022: Sloppy 19-10 loss to the Bears in monsoon rains that transformed Soldier field into a swimming pool. The Bears only won two more games all season. Trey Lance’s first season as starter, and final appearance with the Niners, would come to an unceremonious end the following week in a home win against Seattle. This Week 1 loss proved to be an extremely ominous one–it cost San Francisco the No. 1 playoff seed and forced them to visit Philadelphia in (PTSD trigger warning) an NFC Championship game that was over before it started once Brock Purdy exited with a freak UCL injury.
Even the victories in 2019 and 2021 were uninspiring at best and came close to being losses.
The 2019 win–against a Bucs team that only won seven games that season–was ho-hum at best. San Francisco could only muster two field goals in the first half and trailed the Buccaneers 7-6. The Niners clung to a flimsy 6-point lead until the final 2 minutes of the game, when an Ahkello Witherspoon pick-six sealed the deal. This is despite the fact that Tampa committed four turnovers. The 49ers’ eleven penalties, two turnovers, and 5/13 third-down conversion rate went a long way in keeping the Bucs competitive when they should have been anything but.
The narrowly avoided collapse against the Lions was utterly baffling and nearly historic. The 49ers were up 38-10 with 5 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. Had they lost the game in overtime, the 28-point comeback would have been the largest in NFL regular season history at that time (The Colts blew a 33-0 lead against Minnesota last year).
The tenor of the game and feeling about the 49ers’ prospects that year underwent a seismic shift from the third quarter to the final whistle. It has to be the most disenchanting opening-day win in franchise history.
Yes, the 49ers reached the NFC Championship game and put together a storybook ending in 2021 that ultimately fell short; however, their early season struggles nearly rendered that an impossibility. The Niners slumped to a 3-5 record and didn’t claw back to .500 until Week 13. With zero margin for error, San Francisco had to win 7 of their last 9 games, including a must-win season finale against the Rams, in order to qualify for the postseason.
Looking ahead to Week 1 in Pittsburgh
If the 49ers are going to stem the tide of woeful Week 1 performances against the Steelers this season, it’s not going to come easy. Converse to Shanahan, Tomlin has enjoyed a great deal of opening day success, boasting a 10-5-1 record in his 16 years with the team.
Pittsburgh is a consistently competitive, well-prepared franchise with Mike Tomlin at the helm. It’s rare to see them flounder, or do so for very long. After a 2-6 start with a rookie quarterback in 2022, the Black-and-Yellow went on to win 7 of its last 9 games and remained alive in the playoff hunt until the final week of the season. Under the steady tutelage of Tomlin, these young Steelers could be dangerous.
Pittsburgh’s offense is brimming with talent. Kenny Pickett not only benefits from 12 starts as a rookie last year, but also from a revamped Steelers offensive line, the ability to hand off to running back Najee Harris, and a solid stable of receiving talent in George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, and newly acquired Allen Robinson Jr.
Third-year tight end Pat Freiermuth had 63 receptions last year (3 more than George Kittle) and ranked 5th among all tight ends in receiving yards. He looks poised to break out and provides a nice safety blanket for Pickett.
That said, the Steeler franchise was forged on the defensive side of the ball, and it remains the core tenet of the team’s identity. The unit ranked 10th in points allowed last season—offensive struggles notwithstanding—and is led by perennial All-Pro, 2021 Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt.
The 49ers cannot afford to play the way they have been on opening day and expect to come away with a win. A cross-country, 10am start is never ideal for a West Coast team in its own right, let alone the fact that it comes against a venerable Pittsburgh squad at Heinz Field.
Furthermore, the 49ers carry some fairly significant concerns of their own coming into this game.
The incessant media chatter and organizational politics regarding the Trey Lance fiasco and Nick Bosa contract stalemate introduce potential distractions to navigate around. As the Lance drama dies down now that he’s moved onto Dallas, the Bosa saga intensifies. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has yet to sign a contract extension as of writing this article. With each tick of the clock, his availability for Week 1 hangs in the balance.
Then, there’s Brock Purdy. Despite his wild success to end the regular season and playoffs last year, this will be his first Week 1 NFL start. He’s also coming off a significant injury to his throwing elbow. If his sensational rookie performance proved anything, it was that nothing was too big or too challenging for the young signal caller.
However, an iffy 49ers interior offensive line, the mental/physical elements of returning from injury, and the aforementioned challenges the Steelers pose are certainly going to provide the next big challenge for the former Iowa State quarterback.
Lastly, there’s special teams. On paper, it’s reasonable to project this 49ers/Steelers game to come down to the wire. Vegas currently has the 49ers as 2.5-point favorites. If there’s a unit that becomes absolutely critical in a close first game of an unknown season, it’s special teams…and there are a lot of unknowns surrounding the 49ers special teams.
While the hope is that Jake Moody is ready to go on September 10th, his timetable for return remains unclear, as the front office just signed journeyman kicker/practice squad hopper Matthew Wright this week as insurance. Even if Moody is available, this game will be a baptism by fire–a road game in a hostile environment is not the ideal environment for a rookie fresh off a quadricep strain and a shaky preseason performance.
The return game also suffered a blow when veteran Ray-Ray McCloud broke his wrist in joint practice with the Raiders in mid-August. Now, the 49ers will rely on rookie 7th-round receiver Ronnie Bell to handle return duties. Bell has impressed in camp, but fielding punts and kicks at Heinz Field in your first NFL game comes with a tremendous amount of pressure.
Week 1 can be a breeding ground for the strange. Players are shaking off rust; working through excited jitters as they get a feel for themselves and their opponent. Coaches’ game plans are more constricted; they both have—and oppose—new players and coaches without the luxury of studying film from prior weeks.
The weirdness of Week 1 can lead to unexpected anomalies that prove uncharacteristic in retrospect. Remember, the 49ers won their season openers with Chip Kelly and Jim Tomsula, and lost to the 3-13 Bears last season. Upsets, blowouts, and tight games can occur at any time during the course of an NFL season, but there’s something about Week 1 that ramps up the likelihood.
Can the 49ers overcome their lackluster opening-day history, offseason distractions, and the bizarreness of the season’s first game to secure an important victory in Pittsburgh?
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