PITTSBURGH – Brock Purdy spent months rehabbing his surgically repaired right elbow and an entire training camp wondering if he could regain the magic he summoned so improbably — and so regularly — during his remarkable rookie season a year ago.
The answers came swiftly during San Francisco's 30-7 dismantling of Pittsburgh on Sunday. Purdy's elbow is fine. His confidence too.
And his team? Potentially special.
Operating the offense with precision and a dash of daring that took him from “Mr. Irrelevant” to the NFC championship game last season, Purdy threw for 220 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Brandon Aiyuk — both with Steelers cornerback Patrick Peterson in coverage — to calm any doubts about whether his stunning rise in 2022 was a fluke.
“Purdy shut some haters up,” 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa said.
Peterson among them.
The eight-time Pro Bowler, who signed with the Steelers in the offseason, said in the run-up to the game he respected Purdy's play but would still find a way to get his hands on the ball.
What Peterson got instead was a close-up look at Aiyuk celebrating in the end zone. Peterson slipped in the first quarter when Aiyuk darted inside for an 8-yard touchdown. He was in perfect position in the second quarter when Aiyuk when streaking down the sideline.
It didn't matter.
Purdy aimed for Aiyuk's back shoulder and Aiyuk did the rest, somehow keeping his feet in bounds for a 19-yard score as the 49ers (1-0) quickly built a 20-point lead and never looked back.
“Was that on Patrick Peterson?” Purdy said, with just a tinge of faux innocence in his voice. “That one, alright, that felt good.”
Peterson credited the 49ers for a solid game plan, but also pointed out he did knock down a pair of passes during other points in the game.
“I had an opportunity to grab two picks,” he said. “I just didn’t grab (them).”
He was hardly alone on a day San Francisco pushed the Steelers (0-1) around in ways that haven't happened often under 17-year head coach Mike Tomlin, particularly at home.
“We got kicked in the teeth today, in a lot of ways,” Tomlin said.
On both sides of the ball.
Christian McCaffery ran for 151 yards and caught three passes for 17 more for the 49ers (1-0), who looked every bit the dominant force they were down the stretch last season when Purdy took over at quarterback.
Bosa, a handful of days removed from signing the richest contract ever awarded to a defensive player, had two tackles and a quarterback hit. The 49ers didn't need the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year to wreak his unique brand of havoc to keep the Steelers and second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett in check.
San Francisco had five sacks — three of them by second-year defensive lineman Drake Jackson — and intercepted Pickett twice to dim the budding optimism in Pittsburgh after he led the first-team offense to five touchdowns in as many drives during in three exhibition appearances.
“Throughout the preseason, they were hot, you know,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said. “I’m sure they had a lot of confidence coming in and we just came out and executed.”
Pittsburgh either punted or turned the ball over in each of its first five possessions as the 49ers quickly built a 20-0 lead.
While Purdy cruised, Pickett stumbled. He completed 31 of 46 passes for 232 yards, the vast majority of the yardage coming with the Steelers hopelessly behind.
Then again, Pickett was hardly alone. The Steelers didn't get their initial first down until Najee Harris ran for 24 yards with less than two minutes to go in the opening half. That drive ended with Pickett throwing a 3-yard dart to Pat Freiermuth for a touchdown that briefly cut the deficit to 20-7.
Two plays into the second half McCaffrey darted left, spun around a defender and raced 65 yards down the sideline to restore San Francisco's 20-point advantage, getting escorted by lead blocks from Aiyuk and fellow wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud on his way to the end zone.
“When you've got wide receivers that block like that, it’s a special feeling for a running back because you know and truly feel like your guys have your back,” McCaffrey said.
Pittsburgh never threatened the rest of the way even with linebacker T.J. Watt getting three sacks to tie James Harrison's franchise record of 80 1/2. Watt pulled even with Harrison during a third-quarter takedown of Purdy. Harrison needed 177 games to set the record. Watt matched in just 88.
Not that it was any solace during an afternoon in which the gap between the Steelers and one of the league's elite teams was on full display.
“It's not just one person, one play,” Watt said. “There's so much more that goes into (playing better) that you can either look at this film and make excuses or you can look at it and learn from it. And we damn sure better be learning from it.”
Steelers: Longtime DT Cameron Heyward left in the second quarter with a groin injury and did not return. ... WR Diontae Johnson left in the third quarter after tweaking his right hamstring following a 26-yard gain. ... RT Chuks Okorafor left in the fourth quarter and will likely be going into the concussion protocol.
49ers: Visit the Los Angeles Rams next Sunday.
Steelers: Welcome AFC North rival Cleveland on Monday, Sept. 18.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl