Almost everything went right for the 49ers in their 30-7 drubbing of the Steelers to open the season. Almost.
The offense jumped out to a 20-0 lead after scoring on its first four drives, while Pittsburgh’s first five series resulted in four 3-and-outs and an interception. Essentially, the Niners were on cruise control by the time Christian McCaffrey busted out his 65-yard touchdown run early in the second half.
Not to rain on the parade, but there was one glaring weakness that revealed itself on the 49ers offensive line Sunday: starting right tackle Colton McKivitz.
Now, Pittsburgh linebacker T.J. Watt is one of the premiere pass-rushers in the game and makes his opponents look foolish on an almost weekly basis, but McKivitz looked severely overmatched as the game wore on. McKivitz held up well to start the game, but Watt eventually racked up three sacks, a tackle-for-loss and forced a fumble after getting to Niners quarterback Brock Purdy.
“(McKivitz) had the toughest matchup on the field," coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters Monday in a conference call. "There was definitely a number that Watt got him. There's a couple situations we could have helped him out better with some chips and stuff. He battled throughout it, but did good enough for us to win. It was a huge challenge going against that player."
Watt made McKivitz either look too weak or too slow while rushing from the left edge of the defensive line. Aside from the eye test, McKivitz also failed according to the numbers from Pro Football Focus.
Per PFF, McKivitz’s game rating of 45.0 ranks 55th out of 57 offensive tackles who played at least 50 snaps in Week 1 – not including the Monday night matchup between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. But, hey, at least McKivitz’s run-block grade (40.6) was slightly better than that of his predecessor Mike McGlinchey (40.2), though only two tackles had worse days in pass protection, per PFF.
McKivitz, 27, is in his fourth season and Sunday marked just the fourth game of his career he played 100 percent of the offensive snaps. He spent the past few seasons as a backup swing tackle but got promoted to first-string after McGlinchey signed a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the Denver Broncos in free agency this past offseason.
The 49ers couldn’t afford to keep McGlinchey around, as they were pressing up against the salary cap, before George Kittle, Trent Williams and Arik Armstead recently restructured their contracts to free up money. According to OverTheCap.com, the 49ers currently have $42.3 million in cap space for the 2023 season – the most in the NFL.
That type of breathing room gives the Niners a real shot at absorbing a big contract with a midseason trade (right tackle, anyone?) in the same way they did last season with Christian McCaffrey. The trade deadline will occur at 1 p.m. PT on Halloween, two days after the 49ers are scheduled to play the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8.
It’s only one game, but McKivitz looks like a liability at this point. Considering the 49ers are also scheduled to face elite pass-rushers like Dallas’ Micah Parsons (Week 5) and Cleveland’s Myles Garrett (Week 6) in the coming weeks, McKivitz will have to improve to keep Purdy upright. The 49ers have been a quarterback carousel the last few years and the last thing they want to see is Purdy get injured (again) because of poor pass protection.