49ers Star in Jeopardy of Missing Season Opener Against Steelers

Kyle Shanahan

Getty San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan reacts after a play.

The San Francisco 49ers may be missing one of their top players for their season-opening road trip to play the Pittsburgh Steelers. If tight end George Kittle is unable to make it onto Heinz Field, it would mark the second straight year that he has missed the 49ers’ first regular season contest.

As The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch highlighted, Kittle missed Monday’s practice on September 4 with a groin issue.

“The All-Pro remained sidelined Monday when the team returned to practice after a three-day break in preparation for Sunday’s opener at Pittsburgh. Kittle has participated in just two practices in more than three weeks, none since he played 12 snaps in the preseason finale Aug. 25,” the article reads. “Kittle was running off to the side Monday during the portion of practice open to the media.”

As Branch mentioned in his story, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said that he was hoping to have Kittle active for practice. That has not happened, although the veteran tight end was obviously able to do some form of conditioning/individual work as he works to get back to 100 percent health.

Kittle Facing Preseason Injury Issues (Again)

Missing another season opener would be bad luck for Kittle, but the 49ers need to make sure this issue doesn’t stick around. It’s already somewhat bizarre, as Kittle suffered the injury before his only preseason appearance but San Francisco didn’t confirm or deny that he tweaked the issue during that appearance.

In 2022, Kittle missed the first two games due to another unspecified groin injury. Letting him recover seemingly paid dividends, as the former Iowa Hawkeye had an impressive season despite playing with three different quarterbacks and appearing in 15 games.

According to Pro Football Reference, Kittle caught 60 of his 86 targets for 765 receiving yards. He also scored a career-high 11 touchdowns, nearly double his previous best set in 2021.

It’s unclear what the exact nature of the injury is, but the fact that the problem area is the same as last year’s issue is concerning. Resting Kittle for those two weeks were followed by the TE making 18 consecutive appearances, so San Francisco may commit to a similar recovery approach.

49ers, Shanahan Facing Interesting Test to Open 2023 Season

In terms of season openers, a road trip to an AFC team is about as unique as it gets. Considering where the Steelers are as a franchise, it only makes the game more interesting.

Pittsburgh is entering their second year with QB Kenny Pickett while boasting a talented squad on both sides of the ball. Running back Najee Harris, wide receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens are talented enough to challenge the 49ers’ elite defense, despite Pickett still very much in the developmental phase.

Meanwhile, Shanahan 49ers and quarterback Brock Purdy have their own test. San Francisco’s defense forced the second-most turnovers in 2022, but the Steelers’ unit led the NFL in interceptions last season.

Expect to see San Francisco lean into their talented RB group, but it will not be easy thanks to defensive talents like DE T.J. Watt and DT Cameron Heyward. There’s a real chance this game ends up as one of the lowest-scoring contests of Week 1.

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