The game within the game. That’s the beautiful thing about football, especially at the highest level: the key matchups within the game itself.
They say that football comes down to five or six plays in the end. It comes down to individual matchups, too. Win more individual matchups than you lose and there’s a good chance your team is victorious when the clock hits triple zeroes.
On Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, the heavyweight matchup between the visiting San Francisco 49ers and the host Pittsburgh Steelers will feature a number of key matchups within the game, ones that will certainly have a role in determining the outcome one way or another.
Let’s dive into the top matchups to watch Sunday between the Steelers and 49ers.
Steelers OLB Alex Highsmith vs. 49ers LT Trent Williams
Last season, Alex Highsmith recorded a career-high 14.5 sacks opposite T.J. Watt, feasting against one-on-one matchups with his impressive pass rush arsenal that features great speed to power, an elite-level spin move and a developing Ghost rush that gives tackles fits.
As a pass rusher in 2022, Highsmith graded out at a 70.7 overall in that department from Pro Football Focus. He added 55 total pressures to go along with his 14.5 sacks, but his pass rush win rate from ESPN analytics had him outside of the top 10 in the NFL, creating a bit of a knock on him overall.
Fresh off of signing a big extension this summer, expectations are high for Highsmith in 2023. He gets a significant test right out of the gate, squaring off against San Francisco future Hall of Fame left tackle Trent Williams.
Williams is the cream of the crop when it comes to blindside protectors in the NFL. Over the last two seasons with the Niners, Williams has graded out at 97.8 in 2021 and 93.0 in 2022, which includes marks of 86.0 and 87.6 in pass protection. He’s allowed just two sacks combined in the last two seasons and has allowed just 31 total pressures in that span.
San Francisco can leave him on an island against any pass rusher and feel good about it. They’ll be able to do so on Sunday against Highsmith, too, shifting attention to Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt along the defensive front. Highsmith is going to need to win some reps and generate some pressure in that one-on-one matchup. Williams hasn’t seen him yet. It’s going to be quite the battle between the two.
49ers TE George Kittle vs. Steelers Safeties
Over the last 2-3 years, former Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds really settled into his own as a strong player in coverage against opposing tight ends, helping take away the tight end position in the receiving game, for the most part.
He’s now a Philadelphia Eagle, so the Steelers turn to veterans Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal to try and fill the role Edmunds once occupied next to Minkah Fitzpatrick. They’ll be challenged right away by one of the best tight ends in football in George Kittle, should he be able to play. He’s currently listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with a groin injury, but if he’s able to go he’s going to be a factor in the passing game.
Kittle is a force to be reckoned with. He was sixth in the NFL at the position last season in yards after catch behind Travis Kelce, Evan Engram, Dallas Goedert, T.J. Hockenson and Tyler Higbee. He can take short passes and turn them into long gains, and he’s a great route runner overall, too. He generated 3.3 yards per reception per route run last season while seeing 5.6 yards of cushion on average, per Next Gen Stats.
As a receiver, Kittle has graded out at a 90.0 or higher in three of the last five seasons and was at an 84.5 overall last season with an average depth of target of 7.7 yards, just two drops and a conversion rate of 56.9% in contested-catch situations (9-for-16), per Pro Football Focus.
Good news is, Kazee graded out at a 78.1 in coverage last season, but Neal was rather rough at 63.9, allowing 22 receptions on 27 targets when he was the nearest defender for 283 yards and three touchdowns.
Circle this matchup. It’s going to determine quite a bit.
Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth vs. 49ers MLB Fred Warner
The Steelers want to attack the middle of the field more in 2023, now that second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett has more experience and comfort at the NFL level. To do so, the Steelers will need to utilize Pat Freiermuth a bit more.
That starts right away in Week One against the 49ers. That’s a tough matchup though as the 49ers do a good job of taking away the middle of the field defensively, and that has a great deal to do with the abilities of middle linebacker Fred Warner, the best MLB in the game.
In coverage last season, Warner graded out at a 77.4 overall from Pro Football Focus, which was the second-best grade of his career. He gave up a lot of catches last season (38 receptions for 491 yards and two touchdowns), but he generated five pass breakups and had one interception in his All-Pro season. He’s a real force that can cover all three areas of the field in the middle (short, intermediate and deep).
He’ll have a good test on Sunday as Freiermuth is very good in the middle of the field when called upon. According to PFF, Freiermuth 32 receptions on 48 targets, generating 390 yards and two touchdowns, dropping just one pass in the area. He graded out at a 95.2 overall as a receiver in the middle of the field.
Pittsburgh is going to try and attack the middle of the field more, as they showed in the preseason. It’s paramount that Freiermuth wins in this area of the field. He generated just 2.7 yards of separation on average last season, per Next Gen Stats, so he’ll have to make plays in contested-catch situations. He was just 10-for-24 there last season (41.7%), but scored four touchdowns on those 10 receptions.
Steelers iOL vs. 49ers DTs JAVON HARGRAVE AND ARIK ARMSTEAD
Over the last two offseasons the Steelers have done a great job of reshaping the interior of the offensive line, adding Mason Cole and James Daniels in free agency in 2022, and then signing Isaac Seumalo in free agency this offseason.
That trio is very solid on paper and should be able to have an impact in the run game and as pass protectors, starting on Sunday.
Daniels (60.0), Seumalo (69.5) and Cole (66.5) aren’t exactly road graders in the run game, but they are steady overall. In pass protection, Daniels (73.2), Seumalo (79.1) and Cole (63.8) were quite good, allowing just a combined 61 total pressures in a combined 1,990 pass blocking reps. That’s remarkable.
They’ll have to be that good on Sunday against a dynamic interior defensive tackle duo for San Francisco in Arik Armstead and high-priced free agent signee Javon Hargrave.
Hargrave struggled last season as a run defender in Philadelphia, grading out at just 48.2, but he was dominant as a pass rusher, checking in at a 90.8. Hargrave recorded 11 sacks and had 57 total pressures, per PFF, in just 453 pass rush reps.
Armstead played just 349 total snaps last season due to injuries and graded out at 62.5 as a pass rusher and just 59.1 as a run defender. Not great numbers overall, but historically he’s a standout. Healthy in 2021, Armstead graded out at 67.4 against the run and a 78.0 rushing the passer with seven sacks and 52 pressures in 2021, along with 32 run stops.
He’s fully healthy now and has a great running mate next to him in Hargrave.
If Pittsburgh’s interior can hold up against Hargrave and Armstead on the interior in pass protection, that should provide Pickett a pocket to step up into, helping left tackle Dan Moore Jr. deal with Nick Bosa’s speed off the edge. If not, it could be a long day for Pickett in the pocket, and a long day for the Steelers’ run game at Acrisure Stadium.