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49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk is earning respect and focus from opponents

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, center, celebrates with Deebo Samuel, left, and Kyle Juszczyk after scoring a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

 San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, center, celebrates with Deebo Samuel, left, and Kyle Juszczyk after scoring a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

BY JOSH DUBOW contributing

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Defenses preparing to face the San Francisco 49ers have plenty to worry about with three playmakers who have been All-Pros in recent seasons.

There’s running back Christian McCaffrey, who once topped 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. Then there’s Deebo Samuel, who had 1,770 yards from scrimmage two years ago as a dynamic pass catcher and runner. Throw in George Kittle, who has the second most yards receiving among all tight ends since 2018.

It might be time to add receiver Brandon Aiyuk to that mix.

Aiyuk showed how dangerous he can be in San Francisco’s offense when he had eight catches for 129 yards and two TDs in a season-opening win at Pittsburgh that sent other defenses a message that he should be feared, too.

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“I really don’t care too much about respect no more,” Aiyuk said. “I just come out here and do my job.”

After following up a promising rookie year in 2020 with a stint in coach Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse the following year, Aiyuk has done just that since the start of last season.

He led San Francisco last season with 78 catches for 1,015 yards but still came into this season a little overlooked. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters earlier this week that Aiyuk was able to capitalize on all the focus Pittsburgh put on slowing down McCaffrey, Samuel and Kittle to post the most productive opener for a Niners receiver in more than two decades.

“That’s what makes awesome units challenging,” Tomlin said. “They got a lot of capable people who are able to rise up and make plays when others garner attention. I don’t think any of that is surprising to us. His evolution, particularly over the latter half of last year, is kind of reflective of that performance. So, we tip our cap to him. He made a combat 50-50 catch for a touchdown. He made some other significant plays. He played a really good football game.”

Aiyuk caught all eight of his targets last week and became the first San Francisco receiver to have at least 100 yards receiving and two TDs in an opener since J.J. Stokes did it in 1998.

He also delivered one of the plays of the game for San Francisco when he wasn’t running a pass route. Aiyuk’s bone-crushing block helped spring McCaffrey on a 65-yard TD run that broke the game open in the second half and was a highlight of the film review for the team.

“It was fun, it was lit,” Aiyuk said. “Everybody was juiced up. Those are the type of plays that get our team going.”

The commitment to blocking in the run game and the discipline to run routes the way Shanahan wants were missing a bit early in Aiyuk’s second season.

He didn’t even get a single target in the opener that season and had just 13 catches in the first seven games before turning his season — and career — around. Shanahan said the talent was always there for Aiyuk but the biggest difference has been the consistency.

That led to the big performance in the opener, when Aiyuk was the focal point of the passing game.

“You never know which direction it’s going to go each week,” Shanahan said. “But the coolest thing about B.A. is how ready he came to play regardless. You see him on some of those run plays and stuff and from the beginning to the end. Usually when he is like that in the run game, it carries over to the pass game. The pass game’s just a little more out of your control, but (Sunday) it all fell to him and he was ready for the moment and had a big-time game.”

NOTES: LB Dre Greenlaw sat out practice with a groin injury but is expected to play Sunday. … LT Trent Williams got a veteran’s day off. … Kittle (groin) and WR Ray-Ray McCloud (wrist) were full participants after being limited last week.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL

JOSH DUBOW

JOSH DUBOW

Josh is an NFL writer who covers Raiders and 49ers

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