Pickett, Steelers looked unbeatable in the preseason. Against San Francisco, they were anything but

PITTSBURGH (AP) — So much for the Pittsburgh Steelers' perfect preseason and the boundless optimism that came along with it.

They both vanished into the ether during a 30-7 loss to San Francisco on Sunday.

The receivers that ran freely in August found themselves blanketed. The ocean of time quarterback Kenny Pickett had to throw during training camp was reduced to a mere puddle. That is, if it existed at all on a day Pickett was sacked five times and pressured countless others.

The result was a sobering three-hour reality check.

“I think San Fran's defense is a little bit better than some teams in the preseason we played," Pickett said. “They're a good team. But at the end of the day, we didn't secure anywhere near at the level that we need to or want to. Have to get a lot better.”

There's plenty to work on. Pickett completed 31 of 46 passes for 232 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. His accuracy was scattershot at best. He threaded a 3-yard touchdown to Pat Freiermuth that momentarily gave the Steelers momentum near the end of the first half. He also sailed a pair of passes that ended up in the hands of defenders with a white “SF” on their helmets.

Perhaps most troubling was the absolute inability to generate anything at all when the game was still up for grabs. The Steelers either punted or turned the ball over on each of their first five possessions, failing to secure a single first down in the process while the 49ers built a 20-point lead.

“As an offense, in training camp and preseason we’ve been playing so well, and then we go out there and we don’t play well,” center Mason Cole said. “It’s a little disappointing but there’s nobody to blame but ourselves.”

There's plenty of blame to go around. While outside linebacker T.J. Watt looked as good as ever while getting three sacks to tie James Harrison's franchise record of 80 1/2, the Steelers also let San Francisco star Christian McCaffrey rack up 152 yards rushing, 65 of them coming on a sprint down the sideline on the second play of the second half that effectively put the game out of reach.

The 49ers held the ball for more than 37 minutes, outgained the Steelers 391-239 and seemed to do whatever it wanted whenever it wanted against the NFL's highest-paid defense.

“You guys watched the preseason, we were able to start fast in all three phases of the game, and today was definitely not like that,” Watt said.

No, it was not.

Pittsburgh lost defensive tackle Cam Heyward to a groin injury in the early going and defensive end DeMarvin Leal to an elbow injury not long after. Their absence disrupted the carefully laid rotation the coaching staff had laid out to keep players fresh.

Instead, the Steelers wore down at times. San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy was an efficient 19 of 29, throwing for a pair of touchdowns to Brandon Aiyuk with veteran defensive back Patrick Peterson in coverage. Peterson predicted he'd get at least one interception against Purdy. While he did knock down a pair of passes, he also couldn't stop Aiyuk from landing in the end zone with the ball in his hands.

“We can’t hit the panic button just yet, it’s Week 1,” Peterson said. “We know the things we have to clean up on the defensive side of the ball and hopefully we will be better next outing.”

There's nowhere to go but up.

The Steelers are banking on Pickett making a leap forward following a solid finish to his rookie season last winter. It certainly looked as if he was ready during the preseason when he led the first-team offense to five touchdowns in as many drives when he was on the field.

Pickett stressed he felt “comfortable” even while facing one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. Maybe, but he didn't look comfortable while missing passes that he completed with relative ease over the summer.

Summer's over. Now, things count. And the 49ers laid the blueprint for every team the Steelers will face for the next four-plus months. Get out in front early. Stop the run. And dare Pickett to beat you with his arm.

It's certainly what Cleveland will try to do when the Browns (1-0) visit Acrisure Stadium on Monday, Sept. 18.

It's early, yes. And the Steelers somehow scrambled out of a 2-6 start a season ago to finish 9-8 and flirt with making the playoffs.

Merely flirting with the postseason won't be enough in 2023. There's a long way to go. But a team that thought it was well ahead of where it was a year ago instead looked ordinary at best. That needs to change quickly or Pittsburgh might find itself in a hole that could be difficult to climb out of in what is expected to be the toughest division in the league.

“We're going to put this behind us,” Pickett said. “We've got to learn from the miscues (and) put our best foot forward next week.”