SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Colin Kaepernick's 335 passing yards in Sunday's 43-18 loss to the Steelers were the third most of his career.
Yes, the game was out of hand in the second half after a 21-0 run by Pittsburgh in the second quarter. And Kaepernick threw for 274 of his yards after halftime, when the Steelers defense might not have been playing with the utmost intensity.
But with all the discussion surrounding Kaepernick and his work in the offseason, the early returns are promising for the 49ers in a small, two-game sample.
He's completing 69.4 percent of his throws, having never completed more than 62.4 percent in his previous three seasons as the starter. Of course, one bad game in Arizona this week could ruin those numbers in the season's infancy.
"There are things in this game that we can take away as positive. But, we don’t play for moral victories," Kaepernick said of his performance. "It’s something that we have to look at this week and move on."
Kaepernick Sunday did something he hadn't done much in training camp or at all in the preseason: hit his new wide receiver Torrey Smith for a big play.
The duo connected on a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter after Smith had just one catch for five yards in the exhibition slate. Smith finished with a team-high 120 yards on six catches. He notched six receptions or more just three times in his final two seasons in Baltimore.
After Sunday, Kaepernick has completed 7 of 8 when targeting Smith, with a perfect 158.3 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus.
"It’s definitely one of the positives you can take from the game. We were able to move the ball throwing the ball," Smith said Monday. "It’s not like they were in a vanilla defense, they were doing the same thing they were doing. It wasn’t necessarily junk plays, or we were stealing yards...It’s something that we can build on. Kap can get some confidence from it, and we’ll continue to grow."
After running back Carlos Hyde ran for 168 yards and two scores in the opener, it was clear the Steelers defense was doing everything it could to take away Hyde's running lanes, forcing Kaepernick to rely on his arm.
That plan worked for the home team, particularly after Hyde sustained a leg contusion in the first half, which head coach Jim Tomsula recognized Monday. In the second half, Hyde left the game to get checked for a head injury after taking a hit from linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Hyde passed the NFL-mandated concussion protocol, but Tomsula said keeping Hyde out for the remainder of the game was his decision.
The score, in addition to Hyde's absence, meant it was time for Kaepernick to try and get the 49ers back in the game by throwing the ball. His 46 attempts and 33 completions were both career highs.
Given the circumstances, Tomsula acknowledged Kaepernick's performance, but didn't want his feelings about his quarterback's game reflect the team's showing as a whole.
"You don't like to say anything was good," Tomsula said of the loss. "But, Colin Kaepernick played a pretty good football game. Once again, doing the thing we're asking him to do. Getting us into the plays we're asking him to get into. Throwing the ball well, seeing the field."
Kaepernick was the 49ers' leading rusher with 51 yards on nine carries - a 5.7-yard average. He was less than a yard away from his first rushing touchdown of the season when a score was reversed via replay late in the fourth quarter.
That play came on fourth down, forcing the 49ers to turn the ball over back to the Steelers after failing to score. On the day, San Francisco finished 1 of 4 in red zone efficiency, in stark contrast to Pittsburgh's perfect 5 of 5.
Down 29-3 in the third quarter, Kaepernick led an 18-play drive that ended on the Steelers' 1-yard line when fullback Bruce Miller dropped an easy touchdown pass from Kaepernick on fourth down in the front-right corner of the end zone. That same drive, receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis dropped passes.
"It’s a lopsided game and I’m not really into talking about all the positives, to be quite honest with you," Tomsula said. "We had some drops. So, we weren’t, nothing was glowingly beautiful yesterday. It was not a good day for us and we’ve got to get that fixed."
Up next, the 49ers take on division foe Arizona (2-0), that has allowed 580 yards through the air in two games, ranking 28th in the NFL in passing defense.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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