September 10th will be here before you know it. That’s when the Pittsburgh Steelers kick off their 2023 season, doing so at home for the first time since 2014. While the location has changed, the Steelers’ recent string of tough Week One opponents remain the same. After playing the Buffalo Bills in 2021 and Cincinnati Bengals in 2022, both Steelers’ victories, the San Francisco 49ers will come to town Week One.
On the latest episode of Cam Heyward’s Not Just Football podcast, Heyward offered a preview of the game, noting the offensive uncertainty on both sides but two stingy defenses that could dominate the day.
“It’s gonna be one of those games that defense is gonna be a major factor because you don’t know what to expect on either offense because they’re gonna look completely different,” he said.
The 49ers don’t know who their Week One quarterback will be. If healthy and cleared, Brock Purdy will get the nod but the severe elbow injury he suffered last season makes his status uncertain for the opener. If Purdy is unable to go, San Francisco will decide between Sam Darnold – signed in the offseason – or former first-round pick Trey Lance. While it’s a central question to the start of their season, Heyward understands the 49ers’ offense is about so much more than a quarterback.
“They have a really good running game with Christian McCaffrey,” he said. “A really good defense. They get Deebo Samuel the ball in so many different ways that I wouldn’t just plan for the quarterback. You gotta plan for their entire team.”
One reason for Purdy’s success last season was a strong supporting cast, sound scheme, and great coaching. The 49ers made the aggressive move to acquire RB Christian McCaffrey from the Carolina Panthers midway through last season. He stayed healthy and had success, rushing for over 700 yards in 11 games and scoring 10 total touchdowns, including six rushing. He played a key role in the playoffs too, rushing for over 100 yards with a receiving touchdown in the team’s Wild Card win over Seattle and found the end zone in the team’s Divisional Round win against the Dallas Cowboys.
The strength of the 49ers is their defense. The #1 scoring defense in the NFL last year returns Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa and got stronger with the addition of ex-Steeler Javon Hargrave to man the middle (Heyward also mentioned he’ll soon have Hargrave on an episode of his show). Pittsburgh’s defense was stout once T.J. Watt returned after the bye and Pittsburgh didn’t allow more than 17 points over its final seven games of the year.
Now that he knows his next opponent, Heyward is ready to get to work.
“I’ll definitely start my homework soon just so I can get a jump and start to feel more comfortable,” he said.
Recent history is on Pittsburgh’s side. The Steelers have won their last three season openers dating back to 2020. Meanwhile, the 49ers are 2-4 in openers under head coach Kyle Shanahan.
You can catch the full episode below.