Instant analysis: Brock Purdy, 49ers defense dominate Steelers in season opener

Instant analysis: Brock Purdy, 49ers defense dominate Steelers in season opener

PITTSBURGH — The instant Brock Purdy’s touchdown pass found Brandon Aiyuk for the 49ers’ first points of a promising season, Purdy emphatically celebrated toward his team’s sideline by unleashing fist pumps and flexing his arms.

It was the polar opposite scene from last season’s ending on the other side of this state, when Purdy’s throwing elbow got wrecked and the 49ers’ Super Bowl bid got swiped by the Philadelphia Eagles.

“Once I hit that touchdown, I wasn’t thinking (about) surgery,” Purdy said. “It was, ‘Man, we’re here to win. This is it. This is how we’re going to play.’ ”

The full-strength 49ers sure looked like Super Bowl competitors Sunday to start this season, routing the host Pittsburgh Steelers 30-7 before 67,679 fans, including a healthy smattering of 49ers Faithful in red jerseys who chanted “Let’s Go Niners!” in the closing minutes.

This was the 49ers’ third season-opening win under seventh-year coach Kyle Shanahan; those other victories also came on the road (2019 Tampa, 2021 Detroit) to launch playoff-bound seasons. It was the franchise’s most dominant debut since a 28-0 shutout in 2016 against the Rams.

Highlighting the 49ers’ idyllic first-half start Sunday were two touchdown passes from Purdy to Aiyuk, two Drake Jackson sacks on third down, two Jake Moody field goals, and so much more. In building a 20-0 lead, they had outgained the Steelers 223-1.

“Drake broke out, which we expecting. We just have so many players,” Nick Bosa said. “It fun to watch Aiyuk do his thing and Purdy shut some haters up. It’s nice to be on a really good team.”

“It opened up as good as you could hope for,” Shanahan said.

Six months to the day of his elbow surgery, Purdy threw for 220 yards, including 129 to Aiyuk on eight catches.

“Whenever a guy comes back from an injury and people don’t expect him to make another leap in the second year, I’m just happy for him,” Bosa added. “He’s exactly who we thought he was.”

Bolstering the offense were Christian McCaffrey’s 151 rushing yards, Deebo Samuel’s 55 receiving yards, George Kittle’s fourth-down conversion on the first drive, and an offensive line that stifled the Steelers aside from T.J. Watt’s three sacks.

The 49ers, with new coordinator Steve Wilks calling plays from the fourth-level booth, did not allow a first down through five series. Bosa did not register a sack just days after scoring a historic contract, but he blended into the defense’s dominance. Jackson, after fading in his rookie season, opened this one with a three-sack afternoon; Javon Hargrave and Kerry Hyder Jr. each had a sack on the closing series.

It took five possessions for the 49ers to punt, and even though that pinned the Steelers at their 5-yard line with 95 seconds remaining in the first half, they followed with a 95-yard touchdown drive to spoil the shutout bid.

“It was about 28 minutes really good football, then two minutes of really bad football,” Shanahan said. “Them scoring at end half put a little damper on it.”

The 49ers’ response: Only 58 seconds after halftime, McCaffrey raced 65 yards down the sideline for a touchdown, complete with downfield blocks by Aiyuk and Ray-Ray McCloud before McCaffrey dove across the goal line. That pushed the 49ers’ lead back up to 20 points, 27-7.

That second-half start was almost as stunning as the 49ers’ first-half entrance.

After Jackson delivered a third-down sack on the season’s opening series, Purdy engineered a 54-yard touchdown drive in his first action since playing with a torn elbow ligament in the NFC Championship Game loss in Philadelphia. Purdy capped the seven-play sequence by finding Aiyuk wide open in the middle of the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown pass, only 2 1/2 minutes into the season.

The Steelers had a feeble response: Charvarius Ward intercepted Kenny Pickett’s 25-yard lob on third down near midfield, with Arik Armstead and Fred Warner providing pressure while Nick Bosa fought through a one-on-one block. (Bosa finished with two tackles and one quarterback hit.)

The 49ers converted that turnover into points, with Moody making his first NFL field-goal attempt, from 41 yards. For the second straight season opener, the 49ers held a 10-0 lead, and, unlike last year’s rain-soaked debacle in Chicago, they added to that cushion.

It became a 17-0 margin thanks to Aiyuk’s second touchdown, which came on a phenomenal catch at the front right pylon, against tight coverage from Patrick Peterson, who vowed last week he would intercept Purdy.

Their lead shrank to 20-7 when Pickett threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Pat Freiermuth against Dre Greenlaw’s coverage. Extending that drive were four catches against Ambry Thomas at right cornerback, and two penalties on Deommodore Lenoir, including an unnecessary-roughness hit on Najee Harris, whose 24-yard third-down run supplied the Steelers’ initial first down of the season 1:16 before halftime.

Following Talanoa Hufanga’s interception with 10 minutes to go, the 49ers’ offense returned to action, leading to Moody’s third field goal (40 yards) in as many tries in his NFL debut.

Even when the Steelers made a big play, it didn’t cost the 49ers much: T.J. Watt sacked a scrambling Purdy, but the 49ers did not lose any yards on the second-quarter play, and even though the ball got knocked from Purdy’s grasp, he grabbed it behind his back; the Steelers lost a replay challenge on that call.

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Purdy’s sixth-sense pocket presence showed best on a second-quarter play, in which he spun away from blind-side blitzer Minkah Fitzpatrick and completed a 10-yard pass to Samuel at the Steelers’ 37-yard line at the two-minute warning.

Watt proved as much of a nuisance as expected. His third sack of the day saw him beat right tackle Colton McKivitz and force a fumble Watt recovered near midfield with 5:35 left in the third quarter. The Steelers’ second-half comeback bid could only go so far, however, especially after losing wide receiver Diontae Johnson (hamstring) and All-Pro defensive tackle Cam Hayward (groin).

In the end, it didn’t matter how many snaps Bosa played only four days after agreeing to a historic contract extension. Bosa was in there from the jump, and he wasn’t alone.