Brock Purdy

Five 49ers to watch in regular-season opener vs. Steelers

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The band is back together.

The two major issues surrounding the 49ers since the end of last season were Brock Purdy’s arm and Nick Bosa’s contract.

The arm is fine, as Purdy demonstrated during his first practice of training camp when he unleashed a couple of 45-yard tosses down the field. The 49ers believe they have their long-term quarterback in the young man who will be making his first NFL Week 1 start.

And on the other side of the ball, the 49ers feel more secure knowing Bosa is happy, healthy and wealthy.

The 49ers and Bosa agreed to a five-year, $170 million contract extension at just the right time in order for him to suit up and get after the quarterback on Sunday, when the 49ers open the season at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Here are five 49ers to watch in the regular-season opener:

5, WR Deebo Samuel

This is wide receiver Deebo Samuel’s first opportunity to turn the page on what he called an “awful” season.

A year ago, freshly off a contract situation that was a clear distraction, Samuel was out of shape and not able to provide the 49ers with the same big-play capabilities that made him an All-Pro player in 2021. His yards-per-reception fell from 18.2 to a pedestrian 11.3.

Samuel had a strong training camp and won the respect of his teammates to be named one of the 49ers’ six captains. He appears to be extra-motivated to have a great season.

And it all starts against a team that has struggled to find competent play at the cornerback positions.

4, CB Deommodore Lenoir

Injuries prompted the 49ers to go with second-year cornerback Deommodore Lenoir for the bulk of last season. And while he gave up plenty of catches and yards in the regular season, he proved to be a strength of the team in the playoffs.

The Steelers will feature more three-receiver sets than in the past with Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Allen Robinson. Pickens, in particular, poses a threat on the outside and figures to build greatly on his solid rookie season.
Pittsburgh wants to use its running game to set up deep shots down the field, so Lenoir has the challenge of helping out in run support while making sure he does not allow any of the Steelers receivers to get behind him for a big play.

3, QB Brock Purdy

The comparison is striking.

The Steelers have big hopes this season, and they expect quarterback Kenny Pickett to make a huge leap in production. Pickett was the first quarterback chosen in the 2022 NFL Draft.

On the other side, the 49ers also have high expectations with their own second-year quarterback.

Purdy played the final six regular-season games, but that was enough for him to surpass Pickett as the consensus best rookie quarterback of last season.

Now, the difficult part begins: Replicating or surpassing what he did when made a swift climb from No. 3 on the depth chart due to injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Purdy is back to full strength after offseason elbow surgery, and his plan of attack will be to find the open man among the team’s deep group of playmakers and deliver the ball accurately for big yards after the catch.

2, DE Drake Jackson

Everybody knows what Bosa can do.

While a good share of the Steelers’ attention will be on containing Bosa, the 49ers must get production on the other side from second-year player Drake Jackson. And he should have opportunities to get to quarterback Kenny Pickett because of a steady diet of one-on-one matchups.

The 49ers invested a second-round pick in Jackson in the 2022 NFL Draft. He got off to a promising start with three sacks in his first five games.

Then, he fizzled. Jackson could not maintain his strength, and he ended up for five of the 49ers’ final six weeks, including all three postseason games.

Jackson put in the work during the offseason to be able to hold up. And, now, they need him to produce after the 49ers did not re-sign defensive ends Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu in free agency.

1, RT Colton McKivitz

For all the talk of Purdy and Bosa and the names you know by heart, the Steelers might look at 49ers right tackle Colton McKivitz as the matchup that provides them the chance of game-changing success.

McKivitz takes over for Mike McGlinchey, who signed a lucrative contract with the Denver Broncos in the offseason. His first assignment is to match up against Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt.

“It’s a great way to start,” McKivitz said. “I’m excited to go against the best they have to offer.”

Watt is coming off his least-productive NFL season. He missed seven games with a torn pectoral muscle, and managed just 5.5 sacks in 10 games.

In 2020 and ’21, he registered an NFL-best 37.5 sacks in 30 games and was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2021.
McKivitz, of course, will not match up one-on-one against Watt for the entire game, but there will be times when he is left alone to block the Steelers’ biggest threat.

“One thing you see is he’s never quitting on plays,” McKivitz said. “That’s the big thing. He’s got a lot of tools in his back pocket. The key is getting your hands on him and making sure he doesn’t turn the edge into the pocket.”

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