Thompson: Brandon Aiyuk, even in a phone booth, shows how dangerous 49ers can be

Brandon Aiyuk, lined up in the slot to the right, ran straight at Pittsburgh cornerback Patrick Peterson, who backpedaled until he was a couple of yards deep in the end zone. Deebo Samuel, lined up wide right, slanted in front of Aiyuk across the middle of the field, taking Steelers safety Damontae Kazee with him. This left Peterson on an island.

Fortunately for Peterson, his film study gave him insight into the tendencies of the Brock Purdy-led 49ers offense.

As he slid over to head off Aiyuk, Peterson pointed to alert his teammates where Samuel was going. And even with the play action to Christian McCaffrey, Peterson didn’t get caught looking in the backfield. He was on Aiyuk the whole way. It seemed Peterson had a bead on the play.

But Aiyuk, as he got close to Peterson, chopped his feet as he decelerated before making his move — both his hands waving, accentuating the misdirection. Aiyuk feigned toward the sideline as if he were running an out route. Then, suddenly, he darted toward the middle of the field.

Peterson was cooked. You could tell he didn’t pick up a tell because he fell.

Both hands touched grass as Aiyuk zipped away from him. Peterson didn’t get back into the picture until Aiyuk was crash landing with a touchdown — his first of two on the day to go with a career-high 129 yards receiving.

“Aiyuk did an awesome job beating his man,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Deebo was No. 1 on the route. We were expecting a lot of people to go with him and leave Aiyuk alone. (Our offensive line) needed to hold up to be able to wait for that, and we did. And Aiyuk did what we thought he would do.”

It was the opening salvo of what became a 30-7 thumping by the visiting 49ers. It was also a tangible example of the 49ers’ offensive potency. This regular season started the same way the last one ended.

Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh marked the 49ers’ fourth consecutive regular-season game scoring at least 30 points and the eighth time in 11 regular-season games since acquiring McCaffrey. In their last seven regular-season games, in which Purdy took the majority of the snaps, the 49ers have averaged 33 points.

A potent offense wins you a lot of games during the regular season. In the history of the NFL, 41 teams have averaged 30 points per game for a season. Of them, 34 finished with at least 12 wins. Only the 2004 Chiefs did it and had a losing record.

Over the last 10 seasons, 39 teams have averaged 28 points — 27 won at least 12 games. Only the 2019 Buccaneers and 2016 Saints won fewer than 11 games, each posting seven wins.

And if the 49ers defense is as good as usual? San Francisco should be as good as advertised.

The potency of the 49ers offense helps its defense just by the pressure it applies. Opposing offenses already know they has to figure out a way to get four scores to have a chance. Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett had been lights out in the preseason and is expected by many to lead a formidable Steelers offense. That still might end up true. But Pittsburgh got behind, and he looked wholly mediocre trying to make something happen against the 49ers defense.

“I think San Fran’s defense is a little bit better than some teams in the preseason we played,” Pickett told reporters after the game.

The 49ers offense scored 30 points in this 2023 opener despite a pedestrian second half. The 49ers managed just 10 points after halftime — punting twice, fumbling once and settling for a field goal while trying to burn clock. The Steelers’ pressure began exposing some of the rust in the 49ers’ offense (and potential issues with their offensive line). But that only underscores the possibilities when they’re in midseason form.


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One of the reasons the offense might be even better this year is because of Aiyuk. It looked like Samuel was right when he said Aiyuk couldn’t be covered in a phone booth.

The hype surrounding Aiyuk proved to be much more prophecy than pontification in Week 1. He’s been raved about since minicamp and has consistently looked like one of the best players on the field. That translated in the opener. Aiyuk looked every bit the nightmare matchup.

Defenses are forced to commit to Christian McCaffrey, whose 152 rushing yards Sunday were his most in a game since October 2019. McCaffrey had 22 carries, five targets and lined up all over the field as Shanahan’s defensive magnet.

The second hammer of Shanahan’s offense is Samuel. Defenses must commit bodies to him because of how dangerous he is in the open field. Samuel has a monster year on his resume — 1,770 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns in 2021 — which makes him a gameplan focus. The same is true for George Kittle, he of 11 touchdowns last season, whenever he leaves the line of scrimmage.

That leaves Aiyuk in single coverage. But the way he looks now, that can’t be the gameplan.

“We have like six mouths to feed on our offense,” Kittle said back in June on the “Pardon My Take” podcast. “And so, if he was in an offense where he was the No. 1 choice and got 12 targets a game, he’d probably have 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns a year. He’s fantastic.”

His second touchdown Sunday was a portrait of the conundrum defenses face. McCaffrey kept two linebackers hovering around the line of scrimmage. The third linebacker was on Kittle, so Steelers’ elite safety Minkah Fitzpatrick had to help as Kittle ran a route toward the left pylon. Samuel was in the slot near the right hash marks. Because the middle of the field was wide open, Kazee, the Steelers’ other safety, had to stay in the middle of the field in case Samuel headed that way.

That left Peterson on an island with Aiyuk again. He was all over Aiyuk, kind of like they were in a phone booth, and it didn’t matter.

If Aiyuk is going to be this good, defenses will have to adjust. Last season, he had 1,015 yards receiving, and that was with only one game over 90 yards, and that was in Week 16.

He connected on just over 65 percent of his targets in the first seven games. Over the next 10 games, with McCaffrey in the lineup, it jumped to nearly 71 percent. Sunday, Aiyuk and Purdy had a palpable chemistry as they connected on every target.

“Anytime you throw at someone eight times,” Shanahan said, “and all eight of ‘em are completions, that means you’re doing some real good stuff.”



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(Photo: Matt Durisko / AP)

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