SANTA CLARA — After opening last season with six losses in their first eight games, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished with momentum.
Specifically, quarterback Kenny Pickett played at a level that gives the Steelers reason for optimism in the 2023 NFL season.
And the 49ers are among those who consider themselves believers.
“He’s got the talent around him, and he’s making those throws and he looks really confident,” 49ers veteran safety Tashaun Gipson said Monday of Pickett.
“You go back to his film last year, compared to this year, and he looks like a quarterback who’s confident in making every throw.”
The 49ers open the regular season Sunday in Pittsburgh, against a Steelers team that could challenge for the AFC North title.
A lot of the Steelers’ hopes rest on Pickett’s shoulders.
As a whole, his rookie season was underwhelming. Pickett averaged just 6.2 yards per pass attempt, threw seven touchdown passes, had nine interceptions and a 76.7 passer rating.
But as the Steelers rallied to finish 9-8, Pickett became the first rookie quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to win four or more games as starter and throw fewer than two interceptions in November and December.
The Steelers went 6-1 with Pickett to close out the season, and he was the first rookie in NFL history to lead game-winning, final-minute touchdown drives in back-to-back weeks.
“The quarterback, as you can see in the preseason from Year 1 to Year 2, has jumped,” 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga said.
“The leap that he’s making is impressive. He’s a little more comfortable back there. You even see stuff online about the step he’s making and the growth you’d want in a second-year player.”
Pickett, at No. 20 overall, was the first quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.
For what it’s worth, Pickett played five drives during the preseason, and the Steelers scored touchdowns on each of those possessions.
Pickett completed 13 of 15 passes for 199 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Steelers will want to make things as easy on Pickett as possible, with a two-pronged running game that features 242-pound Najee Harris and the quick, elusive Jaylen Warren.
Pickett can spread the ball around in the passing game to wide receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens, as well as tight end Pat Freiermuth.
“He’s throwing the ball with confidence and it’s showing on film,” Gipson said. “That offense is clicking. They look pretty good in the preseason, so we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”