After getting taken to school by T.J. Watt, 49ers’ O-line set sights on Aaron Donald

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald next in line after Watt beat 49ers and Colton McKivitz for three sacks

SANTA CLARA — Colton McKivitz isn’t any happier about what happened against Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt than the fans already calling for his replacement.

McKivitz was beaten for three sacks in his first game as the 49ers’ starting right tackle in place of the departed Mike McGlinchey, leading to two fumbles by Brock Purdy, one of which the quarterback recovered by lying on his back with the ball underneath him.

“I’ll give you that it wasn’t great,” McKivitz admitted Wednesday as the 49ers began preparations for their Week 2 game against the Los Angeles Rams. “On tape, it didn’t look like me. He was able to get to the edge quickly because the angles were flat.”

While the 49ers’ Faithful are calling for a trade on social media, McKivitz, at the very least, has the ability to do something about it. He can improve the depth of his sets, hand position, and play keep-away with his height (6-foot-5) and long arms.

McKivitz refers to his errors as “easy fixes.”

On the cross-country flight home after the rout in Pittsburgh, he was probably a little more subdued than his teammates.

“It’s hard to enjoy a win after you give up three (sacks), but I mean, it’s hard to win in this league,” McKivitz said. “You enjoy it, but you’re still thinking about the plays you botched. That is all part of the game. You move on and learn from it.”

While McKivitz won’t have to face Watt again until the 49ers face the Steelers in the Super Bowl, he may have to face three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Donald is a defensive tackle who is sometimes moved to the outside for mismatches. And it just so happens that McKivitz should take off his No. 68 jersey and replace it with a target.

Another chapter was added to Donald’s legend when a field microphone captured Seattle quarterback Geno Smith shrieking “Oh my God!” as Donald broke free on an inside rush in the Rams’ 30-14 season-opening win.

The 49ers have won eight straight regular-season games against the Rams (Los Angeles won the NFC Championship Game following the 2021 season), but their admiration for the 6-foot-1, 284-pound Donald remains unwavering.

When asked about the difficulties of facing a Sean McVay-coached Rams team, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said, “Aaron Donald being on it would be the No. 1 thing.

Nick Bosa, whose recent contract extension made him the highest-paid non-quarterback over Donald ($34 million per year to $31.6 million per year), does not know Donald but says, “He’s one of the best interior pass rushers that’s ever played, so I definitely admire that.”

Even though their styles differ, the 49ers’ defensive tackle Javon Hargrave admitted to mimicking some of Donald’s moves.

Donald will be a different challenge than Watt, who was more angular and wanted to bend to the outside. McKivitz was well aware of the situation. He did well early on, as the 49ers led 17-0 before Watt began to have a big day.

“There were some good reps,” said McKivitz. “I was able to get the inside shoulder and run him high, which was the game plan all week.” But it was those reps where he got the short corner and I leaned on him that got me.”

While McKivitz has faced Donald before, his emergency start in the final game of the 2021 season came as a left tackle facing the now-departed Von Miller, another potential Hall of Famer.

McKivitz took over for the injured Trent Williams with little notice, starting slowly but holding his own in a 27-24 overtime win that put the 49ers in the playoffs.

“I didn’t even have a jersey or pads on, and they come in and say, ‘Hey, you’re starting,'” McKivitz explained. “I didn’t start the game well, but I finished it, we won, and we advanced to the playoffs.” The main thing they noticed was that I could play through the bad plays. But the goal is to not have them at all, so that’s the big thing going forward.”

Right guard Spencer Burford, who plays with McKivitz, struggled at times against Pittsburgh and will almost certainly face Donald. Burford started last season but was frequently replaced by Daniel Brunskill, who had the rare ability to play Donald fairly evenly.

Burford has kept the tips and advice Brunskill gave him before signing with Tennessee, and the reps he did get against Donald have not gone unnoticed.

“It was a surreal moment, especially being young, coming into the league, still learning, and getting thrown out in front of a Hall of Famer,” Burford recalled. “Of course, it’ll brighten your world. But it was a good time. Last year taught me a lot. I had some success last year and am hoping to have some this year.”

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