SANTA CLARA – It’s been a 31-week, spell-binding procession to get the 49ers from last season’s NFC Championship trauma to their next shot at a Super Bowl run.
They’ll start Sunday in Pittsburgh, on the other side of the Keystone State from where Brock Purdy and his teammates got waylaid by the Eagles, 31-7, in the NFC Championship Game.
Alas, a new playoff push is afoot. Did someone say foot? There’s much more to get to than just the 49ers’ maligned kicker situation. So let’s get to it:
THIS WEEK’S STORYLINES
1. NICK BOSA’S HOLDOUT
Contract talks have kept Nick Bosa from reporting to the 49ers, after winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors with a league-leading and career-high 18 ½ sacks. He’s slated to make $17.9 million on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal but is expected to secure the NFL’s highest contract for a non-quarterback. Steelers counterpart T.J. Watt waited three days before the 2021 opener to sign his mega-deal.
2. BROCK PURDY’S WING
Six months after his ulnar collateral ligament was ruptured by Hasson Reddick’s opening-drive sack, Purdy is making a remarkable comeback from his elbow’s internal-brace repair. His reps increased through camp and he played the final two preseason games, then the 49ers cut his workload in half during last week’s light practices to freshen him up for the regular season.
3. HARGRAVE’S RETURN
Poaching defensive tackle Javon Hargrave from the Eagles in free agency is intended to revitalize the 49ers’ defensive front. Hargrave played his first four years with the Steelers as a third-round draft pick, then joined the Eagles and had a career-high 11 sacks last season. He twice sacked Kenny Pickett in the Eagles’ 35-13 home win over the Steelers last Oct. 30.
4. ROOKIE KICKER OR NOT?
Four of the 49ers’ top-five draft picks are injured, most notably kicker Jake Moody, who was diagnosed last week with a quadriceps issue. He’s shown progress but the 49ers are signing Matthew Wright to the practice squad to kick if Moody is unavailable Sunday.
5. WILKS’ DEBUT AS DC
While coach Kyle Shanahan enters his seventh season, he does so with his third coordinator, Steve Wilks, who finished last season as Carolina’s interim coach. Wilks may blitz more than his predecessors but their defensive principles remain intact. “It’s just really sort of geared with our front seven and how we play,” Wilks said. “And it’s certain schematic things that we do here that I probably wasn’t used to in the past, and I’m not going to indulge in that part, but we do it well.”
The Steelers went 3-0 in the preseason and did so with quarterback Kenny Pickett posting a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Pickett was a first-round draft pick last year (No. 20 overall; 242 spots ahead of Purdy) and went 7-5 as a rookie starter (2,404 yards, seven touchdowns, nine interceptions, 63% completion rate).
Running back Najee Harris (Antioch High School) ran for 1,200 and 1,034 yards and 14 total touchdowns in his first two seasons. Leading the wide receiver corps are Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Allen Robinson II.
The Steelers’ defense boasts three players who are three-time All-Pro: safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive linemen Cam Hayward and T.J. Watt, the latter of whom was Bosa’s predecessor as NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2021.
“The quarterback, a second-year guy, has looked phenomenal and has taken the second-year leap,” Wilks said. “He’s doing great things. They have vertical threats down the field that can make things at any moment. They have a very impressive run game.”
INJURIES TO TRACK
Here are the 49ers who’ve been rehabilitating injuries to potentially play:
TE George Kittle (groin)
LB Dre Greenlaw (hamstring)
LB Oren Burks (knee)
S Talanoa Hufanga (knee)
S George Odum (shoulder)
RB Jordan Mason (foot)
WR/RS Ray-Ray McCloud (wrist)
K Jake Moody (quadriceps)
The Steelers are 46-37-5 in season openers, the last three of which they’ve won; they’re 10-5-1 under coach Mike Tomlin. This is their first opener at home since 2014, when they beat the Cleveland Browns 30-27.
The 49ers are 39-33-1 in season openers, 2-4 under coach Kyle Shanahan (home loss, road loss, road win, home loss, road win, road loss.
The 49ers have not played in Pittsburgh since losing 43-18 in Week 2 of 2015, in the Steelers’ home opener. Colin Kaepernick and Ben Roethlisberger each passed for over 300 yards and combined for five touchdowns with no interceptions. Pittsburgh led 29-3 by halftime. It was the first road game under 49ers one-year coach Jim Tomsula, who grew up in the nearby suburb of Homestead.
The Super Bowl-bound 49ers prevailed 24-20 with a Sept. 22, 2019 home-opening win over the Steelers. Arik Armstead forced a fourth-quarter fumble that DeForest Buckner recovered, setting up the 49ers game-winning touchdown drive which Jimmy Garoppolo ended with a 5-yard scoring strike to Dante Pettis with 1:15 remaining.
BULLETIN BOARD MATERIAL
This category doesn’t have to mean what trash talk is being spewed. Instead, enjoy this anecdote, from Wilks on recently asking defensive tackle Arik Armstead if he’s ready for the season. “He sent me a a long, detailed text about everything in the run game with Pittsburgh and I was like, I said, ‘Yeah, I think he’s ready,’ Wilks said. “So it was definitely detailing everything that they’re doing and what we need to do to make sure that we attack it. So, very impressed.”
Armstead has given such scouting reports to his defensive coordinators dating back to Robert Saleh (2017-20), once Armstead said he understood the 49ers’ scheme and how opponents might attack it. What’s Armstead’s take on Harris? “I’ve heard about Najee since high school basically, when he got the Alabama offer his sophomore year … He’s a great back. It’s going to be a challenge to get him down, I think we’re going to be up for the challenge though. He’s an amazing player.”
Sunny, 80-degrees, 5-10 mph winds, 69-percent humidity, per Weather.com.
The 49ers are favored by 2 1/2 points with an over/under line set at 41, according to Caesers Sportsbook.
Prediction: 49ers 26, Steelers 23