With the regular season creeping slowly upon us, it’s time to get a better look at the opponents on the 49ers 2023 schedule, with a focus on comparing rosters. This will be a fun exercise because San Francisco owns one of, if not the best roster in the league. First up: a trip to Pittsburgh on September 10th.
Let’s go through each position, and see if DraftKings Sportsbook is correct in making the 49ers a 2.5-point favorite.
Both teams enter the season with second-year players at the helm. Brock Purdy is fully healed, according to Kyle Shanahan, and will be the starter week one, much to the delight of fans who expect great things from Mr. Relevant.
Steelers fans are also anticipating a strong season from Kenny Pickett, who played better as the season progressed. Despite throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in 2022, Pickett helped Pittsburgh win five of their last six games.
In their only loss during that span, he threw one pass before leaving the game with injury. Pickett, the only first round quarterback in their draft class, does provide more value as a runner and is a better athlete than Purdy. But, the advantage still lies with the former Iowa State Cyclone, who has shown to make better decisions and reads his progressions quicker than his counterpart.
This is just one of those positions that no team will have the advantage over San Francisco. Pittsburgh showcased a better rushing attack in 2022 than the year prior despite a worse statistical output from their former first round pick Najee Harris. Harris, Jaylen Warren, and Anthony McFarland are a serviceable group of runners but don’t top the trio of Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell, and Kyle Juszczyk.
The 49ers unit will be deployed in a number of ways throughout the season and should all get a healthy dose of impactful touches per game. CMC is top three in Offensive Player of the Year Odds and is first among Running Backs. There simply isn’t a non-quarterback more important to their team’s offense.
I might get pushback on this, but hear me out. If George Pickens has the breakout year that many expect, I am afraid that Pittsburgh would take the edge in this positional comparison. That’s a big IF, as Pickens has yet to demonstrate he can consistently create separation in this league. However, even when he is guarded, he makes circus contested catches like only the elite do.
Add in the underrated Diontae Johnson (yes, I am aware he had 0 touchdowns last year) and free agent signee Allen Robinson, and you have a unit all capable of 1,000 yard seasons. Deebo Samuel is a unicorn. And Brandon Aiyuk showed last year that he can be a legitimate number one. San Francisco was excited to bring back Jauan Jennings, and rightfully so, as he is one of the most underrated third receivers in the league.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t get enough looks playing in a stacked offense. But none have the ceiling of Pickens as an outside receiver, hence the tie.
I could spend this blurb talking about all the ways Kittle is an all-time great tight end, but there isn’t enough time in the day. The Steelers’ Pat Freiermuth is a solid player, though, and completely fits the Steelers’ identity. Giving him his flowers, he’s a great inline blocker and quickly became Pickett’s go-to target in critical situations of games.
Pittsburgh possessed a highly critiqued OL unit last season, but the numbers tell a bit different story. They ranked seventh in PFF pass-blocking efficiency and seventh in ESPN pass block win rate. Their running attack wasn’t as formidable, but ESPN still had them top half of the league in RBWR.
Despite starting the same five players in every game a year ago, this off-season they upgraded the left side. First, by signing guard Isaac Seumalo in free agency, and then by selecting tackle Broderick Jones from Georgia in the first round of the draft.
Pro Football Focus might not like the group, but San Francisco had the better group up front a year ago and the expectation is that they still have that edge. The Steelers allowed 63 sacks to the 49ers 31. The Steelers averaged 4.1 yards per rushing attempt to the 49ers 4.7. San Francisco gets a lot of negative evaluations of their interior group, but they proved they can bang with the best of them in the trenches.
They are replacing their right tackle and that is an area of concern. However, they still have the best player on the field at left tackle and so the advantage stays in the Bay.
DEFENSIVE LINE (interior)
These two teams have an argument for top ten interior defensive line units. The Steelers Cameron Heyward has been an iron man at the position for over a decade, and is still playing at a very high level.
In 2022, Heyward had 10.5 sacks and made his sixth-straight pro bowl at 33 years old! Pittsburgh is expected to start rookie Keeanu Benton from Wisconsin at nose and underrated veteran Larry Ogunjobi alongside Heyward.
Of course, the big splash this off-season from San Francisco was addressing their deficiencies on the interior with the signing of Javon Hargrave. Following a career year which included 11 sacks in 2022, Hargrave adds some teeth up the middle of the 49ers defense that has been missing since the departure of DeForest Buckner.
Hargrave will join Arik Armstead who missed a lot of time last season dealing with an injury and former first-round pick Javon Kinlaw who hasn’t lived up to the billing. Heyward gives Pittsburgh the leg up.
Nick Bosa is the best pass rusher in the league. There’s probably only two or three other guys in the conversation, and one of them is T.J. Watt (when healthy). The two of them hold the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards.
You can basically look at this as close enough to a wash. So let’s shift focus to the players opposite these two all-pros. Pittsburgh’s Alex Highsmith burst onto the scene in his third season as a pro, leading the Steelers with 14.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles in 2022.
San Francisco simply doesn’t have a game-wrecker like that outside of Bosa, and will be relying on the career resurrection of Clelin Ferrell or second-year pro Drake Jackson to take the step that Highsmith did last year.
Much like running back, this is a position group that doesn’t need much time comparing as San Francisco boasts the best unit in the NFL. Fred Warner is a generational player who still has several years left at his peak. Dre Greenlaw is finally starting to garner some recognition for his elite pursuit and ability to lay the wood. They’re both top ten off-ball linebackers in the league. Pittsburgh signed two new starters this off-season in Cole Holcomb (WAS) and Elandon Roberts (MIA). Neither player has been a difference maker in their previous stops, and both contracts include a potential out after this season, so we could see some fresh faces for the Steelers in 2024.
These two units aren’t far off from one another, but the best player amongst both teams is Charvarius Ward. Pittsburgh also lacks the continuity of San Francisco’s unit, having overhauled this off-season by signing Patrick Peterson and drafting Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. But Peterson isn’t the player he was when he was making all-pro teams in Arizona and just turned 33 years old.
Porter has the raw talent but currently sits behind veteran Levi Wallace on the depth chart. San Francisco’s Deommodore Lenoir played strong down the stretch and into the playoffs last season, so the 49ers should feel confident about their starting duo. Both teams will utilize newcomers at the nickel spot in Isaiah Oliver for San Francisco and Chandon Sullivan for Pittsburgh.
The two safeties to make all-pro last season will be featured in this opening weekend matchup. Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick is arguably the best at the position in the league, having three pro-bowl nods since joining Pittsburgh at the start of the 2019 season. Last year he tallied up 96 tackles and six interceptions, tied for the most in the NFL.
Talanoa Hufanga became a star for San Francisco after a stellar sophomore campaign that included 97 tackles, four interceptions, and two forced fumbles. The body of work points to Fitzpatrick, but as a tandem, Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson Sr. make a better pair.
Gipson had a renaissance at 33 years old in his first season with the 49ers, leading the team in interceptions (5). The Steelers currently list Damontae Kazee OR Keanu Neal as the starters on the backend with Fitzpatrick. Kazee started four games this past season for Pittsburgh and grabbed two interceptions. He will be competing with Neal, who is on his fourth team in as many seasons.