SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers didn’t put many lowlights on tape against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but there was one that sent coach Kyle Shanahan straight to the bench to talk to quarterback Brock Purdy.
It came on a first down in the third quarter. Shanahan had dialed up a shot downfield for Purdy. But star Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt throttled past 49ers right tackle Colton McKivitz to sack Purdy and force a fumble that the Steelers recovered.
A promising play had been developing on the back end for the 49ers.
“But it was just taking too long, and Brock was waiting on it,” Shanahan said. “He saw it all right and it could have been a big play, we just didn’t have the time for it. And I told Brock, ‘My last thing I want to do is put you in that situation. I thought we’d be able to get rid of it quicker. But when you can’t, you can’t wait on it for that long. Sometimes you’ve just got to tuck it away and take the sack because we didn’t have time to wait on the look.’”
Therein lies the larger issue the 49ers are trying to correct. They’d rather Purdy avoid that whole process of surrender altogether. Aborting promising plays isn’t an acceptable solution, but developing better pass protection is.
The biggest wart of the 49ers’ victory at Pittsburgh were their issues on the right side of the line. McKivitz allowed five pressures and three sacks to Watt, including that strip. Right guard Spencer Burford allowed four pressures and committed three penalties, including a face mask on the strip-sack play — making it possibly the 49ers’ ugliest rep of the afternoon.
49ers minutia minute: Christian McCaffrey bolted left while right side struggled
Based on aggregated scores, the 49ers’ pass protection ranked No. 24 in the NFL during Week 1. Purdy still managed to finish as the league’s top-ranked quarterback in QBR, but it’s fair to wonder how much better he and the 49ers’ offense could’ve been with better pass blocking from the right side.
Aggregated pass protection measures from 3 sources.
Honestly this mostly checks out, though the ratings for PIT are all over the place.
The teams with 100 in the “SIS” column are teams with zero charted blown blocks
(BUF/NYJ not shown bc no data yet) pic.twitter.com/HWBqjqnABB
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 13, 2023
In the locker room on Wednesday, both McKivitz and Burford vowed to make corrections entering this week. The duo, peeved by mistakes in Pittsburgh, began watching tape on the long flight to the Bay Area shortly after the game.
“We hopped straight on the film,” Burford said. “Especially after you win games, that’s how it’s supposed to go.”
The 49ers next visit the Los Angeles Rams, who happened to smother a Seattle Seahawks team that saw both of its starting offensive tackles injured in Week 1. The Rams racked up 20 pressures on the game and held the Seahawks to just 12 total yards after halftime.
The Rams’ superstar on defense, tackle Aaron Donald, will likely challenge both Burford and McKivitz on Sunday. Although Donald primarily lines up on the inside, he isn’t afraid to flex out if he senses a favorable matchup against an offensive tackle. In 2019, in a game that saw the 49ers start backup tackles Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill, Donald moved to defensive end on the first series and ripped by Skule for a sack.
“And he did it last year playing here on third down — he lined up outside when I was at left tackle,” McKivitz said. “So there’s no shortage of seeing him on the edge. And Chris Jones did it here last year when we played against Kansas City.”
The moral of the story is that star pass rushers will seek out an opponent’s biggest weakness, and the 49ers’ most glaring hole coming out of Pittsburgh is the right side of that offensive line.
Burford faced Donald on the inside in both of the 49ers’ wins over the Rams last season. But he played a lighter role in both of those games because the 49ers split right guard duties between him and Daniel Brunskill — who’s now with the Tennessee Titans — in 2022. This time, the 49ers will count on Burford to handle a full game against Donald.
“Last year was a learning curve,” Burford said. “He made a few plays, just basing off of things I can fix myself. Pad placement, things like that. He’s a great player. He’s going to manipulate every weakness that you have. But at the end of the day, we learn and we grow, too. I feel that last year we did a great job neutralizing him in order to get the dub.”
Burford’s biggest struggles in Week 1 came against Steelers defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, who powered by him with a particularly impressive move in the first half. The face mask penalty also came when Burford was working against Ogunjobi.
“My finger got stuck in his face mask,” Burford said, explaining he was trying to punch Ogunjobi’s shoulder instead. “I’m not going to yank it out and break my finger.”
Burford called his other two penalties, a hold and a false start that came when the 49ers weren’t even planning to snap the ball, “unacceptable.”
“The (false start) is just attention to detail,” Burford said. “The entire stadium realized it but not me. All of that is going to get cleaned up this week. We’re going to have a great week.”
McKivitz said that his problems in Week 1 centered on a failure to efficiently use the full length of his body when Watt aimed to blast around him with speed moves.
“That was the game plan all week — inside shoulder and run him high,” McKivitz said. “Because that’s what he wanted to do was run the hoop. Those two reps there in the third, with the short corner, that’s what got me.
“The biggest thing is going out there at practice and getting more depth on the sets and using the length I have, having a bounce-back game and playing with length.”
T.J. Watt tallies his second sack of the game!
— NFL (@NFL) September 10, 2023
Sunday’s game will come at SoFi Stadium, where McKivitz started in place of an injured Trent Williams at left tackle in Week 18 of the 2021 season. The 49ers prevailed in a dramatic must-win situation, and although McKivitz struggled early on against former Rams edge rusher Von Miller, the lineman made significant corrections down the stretch that were key to the victory.
The 49ers would like to see similar improvements from both McKivitz and Burford now.
“I can play through bad plays, McKivitz said, “but the goal is not to have them.”
Said Burford: “We’re trying to do something special this year, and that’s the way it’s going to have to be. Win, lose or draw — even when everything is going good for the team — make sure you make corrections and put yourself in position to be successful the next time you’re out there.”
Odds & ends
• The only 49ers player to miss practice due to an injury concern was linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who’s dealing with a groin issue. Shanahan didn’t seem overly concerned with Greenlaw’s condition, describing it as “wear and tear,” and Greenlaw seemed to move well as he sprinted off to the side during practice.
The 49ers will likely lean heavily on their linebackers against the Rams, who resorted heavily to the quick passing game when the teams last met in Week 8 of 2022. That was L.A.’s way of attempting to neutralize the 49ers’ pass rush, and it put a big onus on the linebackers to make tackles underneath. Greenlaw missed that game with an injury, but Oren Burks delivered a solid outing in his place.
• Shanahan refused to explain exactly why the 49ers removed cornerback Ambry Thomas at halftime against Pittsburgh, but he did confirm that first-half occurrences were behind the switch. Thomas’ exit meant that Isaiah Oliver entered the game at nickelback and Deommodore Lenoir shifted to outside cornerback full time in the second half.
“Things dictate the change,” Shanahan said. “We thought they’d all play in the game, but stuff happened in the game that had us adjust. … Stuff that’s between me and our team. Just watch the film. You might be able to figure it out. Stuff I can’t say, sorry.”
(Photo: Justin K. Aller / Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.