1. Can the Linebackers and Safeties Cover Matchup Nightmares?
As previously mentioned, Christian McCaffrey is one of the best running backs in the entire NFL. But what hasn't been is that he is the league's premier dual-threat out of the backfield. He is a matchup nightmare and someone that Brock Purdy will target early and often. If the Steelers would like to win this game, they can't let McCaffrey beat them.
However, that is easier said than done, as the Steelers have also struggled to cover backs and tight ends the last few seasons. The team has been lacking a pass coverage linebacker, and that has let them get exposed by numerous backs and tight ends.
The prime example of this was when Semaje Perine exposed the team for 3 receiving touchdowns in a game last season. The team hopes that they will improve in this area this year as the previously mentioned Neal, and Alexander were brought in mostly due to their ability to cover as linebackers. Neal was previously a safety so he covers better than most linebackers, but is also strong enough to play the run, so he will see time at both positions.
Add to that the fact that the team let go of Terrell Edmunds, so that Demontae Kazee could get more playing time, due to the fact that he is much better in coverage.
Kazee, Alexander, and Neal will have their hands full with McCaffrey and could be in even more trouble if George Kittle plays as well. Kittle is one of the best tight ends in football, and having the safety blanket of a dynamic pass-catching running back and tight end in the middle of the field was a blessing for Brock Purdy last season. However, Kittle is nursing an injury and his status for Sunday is uncertain. If he doesn't play that would be a massive win for the Steelers defense, as that gives them one less matchup nightmare to worry about.
Clearly, the week 1 matchup with the 49ers is a massive test for the Steelers for multiple reasons. Obviously, the Steelers would like to get out of the gate hot with a win, and prove that they can compete with one of the league's best teams, but there is much more to it than that.
San Francisco's strengths are things the Steelers were weak against last season and worked to improve upon this season. This game is a massive test to see if the team has improved enough in those areas of the game to take the next step and compete with the best the league has to offer.