'A dream to work with,' Purdy returns, powers 49ers to win

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Monday, September 11, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- Exactly six months ago, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy underwent surgery on the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The Niners and Purdy entered that day uncertain about when the former "Mr. Irrelevant" would return to football and, when he did, how he would fare.

On Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, Purdy offered answers to both questions in San Francisco's resounding 30-7 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Purdy shut some haters up [today]," defensive end Nick Bosa said. "I think whenever a guy comes back from an injury, people kind of don't expect him to make another leap in the second year, I'm just happy for him. He's exactly who we thought he was."

The Purdy under center for the Niners on Sunday bore a striking resemblance to the one the Niners saw down the stretch and in the postseason last year before he tore that UCL in the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The only noticeable difference this time was the "C" on Purdy's chest after his teammates voted him a first-time captain last week.

Coincidentally, the Niners and Purdy returned to Pennsylvania for his first regular-season start since the injury. Purdy finished 19-of-29 for 220 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 111.3 and tacked on three carries for 20 yards as the Niners jumped on the Steelers early and didn't need much from the passing game in the second half.

According to NFL research, Purdy became the first quarterback in NFL history to win his first six regular-season starts and throw at least two touchdown passes in each game. He's also the first quarterback to post a passer rating of 95.0 or better in each of his first six regular-season starts.

"You can't tell the difference between him prior to surgery and then post-surgery," left tackle Trent Williams said. "I think he did everything he was asked to do in the offseason and the team noticed it. Which is why he's got a 'C' on his chest. I'm just so proud of him. Just to watch his journey coming in last year to right now, he's a dream to work with."

Purdy didn't take long to get back into a groove on Sunday. After San Francisco's defense forced a three-and-out, the Niners marched 54 yards for the game's first score, an 8-yard touchdown strike from Purdy to wideout Brandon Aiyuk with 9:29 left in the first quarter.

After the scoring pass, a fired-up Purdy turned to San Francisco's sideline, pounded his chest and let out a guttural scream. Purdy doesn't remember what he yelled in the moment, but he said he wasn't thinking about the injury or the rehab that ate up most of his offseason.

"Honestly, not really," Purdy said. "I think more in camp and stuff, I felt like that. I felt like right there in that moment, it was like 'This is what we're supposed to do. This is what we expect out of ourselves' and once I hit that touchdown, I wasn't thinking surgery or anything like that. It was 'Man, we're here to win. This is it. This is how we're going to play.' That's where I was at mentally."

Purdy threw another touchdown to open the second quarter, this time on a well-placed ball to Aiyuk in the front right corner of the end zone. Aiyuk outleaped Steelers cornerback Patrick Peterson and came down with two feet in for the acrobatic score.

Earlier in the week, Peterson said on his podcast "All Things Covered" that the Niners' offense has some "tell signs" that give away what plays they're going to run in certain situations. Peterson added, "When I get my pick Sunday, we'll talk about it."

Purdy was diplomatic when asked about Peterson's comments on Thursday but added a grin and a quick "We'll see." When Purdy was asked about throwing two touchdowns against Peterson, who did not have an interception, Purdy acknowledged he enjoyed the second one a little bit while still praising Peterson.

"That one, I was like, 'All right that felt good,'" Purdy said. "It was good. He's a competitor. I have nothing but respect for Patrick Peterson and everything that he does."

With some help from a defense that allowed just 239 total yards with five sacks and two interceptions and running back Christian McCaffrey, who rushed for 152 yards and a touchdown with three catches for 17 yards, Purdy and the Niners never trailed on Sunday.

It was an ideal start to the season for a team that has been harping on the importance of a fast start after beginning the past two seasons 2-4 and 3-4 and playing more road games than it would prefer in the postseason.

And with Purdy healthy, San Francisco believes the best is yet to come.

"He's taken this whole offseason as good as you can as a quarterback being injured," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "He's done everything he can to come back and he handles the pressure well and he really doesn't change. I think that's why the guys love him and I think that's why he will continue to get better."

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