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Mason Rudolph Is the Great QB Hope You Didn’t Know the Steelers Needed

Conventional wisdom says Pittsburgh is cooked without Ben Roethlisberger. Conventional wisdom didn’t see how bad Ben looked this season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2017, Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and Steelers wide receiver James Washington put on the greatest passing performance the city of Pittsburgh has ever seen. Rudolph threw for 497 yards and five touchdowns, leading his team to touchdowns on all seven of its first-half drives; Washington had five catches for 124 yards, including a 39-yarder.

Unfortunately, this was not a Steelers game. It was a Pitt home game, so instead of 70,000 Terrible Towels, there were about 30,000 fans and 40,000 empty yellow seats. The ratio got worse by the end of the game, as the beatdown became so thorough so quickly that Pitt promised a free beverage to students who stayed until the end. (To this day, I choose to believe that the “beverage” was Heinz ketchup.) Rudolph and Washington were playing for Oklahoma State, winning 59-21.

Maybe it’s random coincidence that one of their greatest collegiate performances came in the same stadium where they would one day play professionally. Maybe the Steelers’ college scouting department looked out the windows and said, “Holy crap.”

Coming into the season, it looked like Rudolph was going to be Pittsburgh’s third-stringer. The starter, obviously, was Ben Roethlisberger, as it has been for 15 years. Roethlisberger was actually upset when Pittsburgh drafted Rudolph in 2018, explaining to a local radio station that the team didn’t need a quarterback because it already had him. And the backup was likely to be Josh Dobbs, drafted a year ahead of Rudolph. Last year, Rudolph’s rookie year, he got so few snaps in practice that the team had him run VR football simulations to stay ready. The Steelers didn’t let Rudolph play in any of their little reindeer games. But the Steelers traded Dobbs to the Jaguars last week to help with the latter’s emergency quarterback shortage, only to run into one of their own when it was determined that Roethlisberger needs elbow surgery that will end his season. Rudolph is their lone quarterback option, except for a guy on the practice squad who happens to be a champion duck-caller.

Pittsburgh started the season with postseason hopes, but is now down a pair of quarterbacks and banking on the least likely of sources. On this foggy Pittsburgh eve, Yinzers have to pray: Rudolph, with your throws so tight, won’t you guide my team tonight?

I’m sorry.

Forgive me and keep reading the article. It’s about sports.

For the most part, prognosticators have treated the Roethlisberger injury like an iceberg ripping through Pittsburgh’s steel hull. Before Week 2, FiveThirtyEight gave Pittsburgh a 46 percent chance of making the playoffs and expected the team to post a positive point differential for the season. Now, the Steelers are listed with an 8 percent chance of making the playoffs with the third-worst projected point differential in the league. On Monday morning, the Steelers were listed at +260 to win the AFC North, implying a 27.8 percent chance; after the Roethlisberger news broke, they dropped to +700, implying a 12.5 percent chance. Throw in the fact that 0-2 teams rarely make the playoffs, and the Steelers seem pretty hopeless.

The Steelers are not as pessimistic. After the Roethlisberger news broke, they traded away their first-round pick in the 2020 draft to the tanking Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. If the Steelers are as bad as FiveThirtyEight and Vegas suggest, that could be a top-10 pick, or even a top-five pick. Pittsburgh must like what it has in Rudolph, otherwise, it would’ve held on to the pick.

I actually think the Steelers are in better position to succeed with Rudolph than they were with an injured 37-year-old Roethlisberger at quarterback. For starters, Big Ben was abysmal in his limited playing time this season. On 62 passes, Roethlisberger had 35 completions for 351 yards and an interception, putting him 29th or worse in completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, and QBR. The Steelers went on one touchdown drive in his three halves this season. That drive started on the 22-yard line and picked up 21 yards on Seahawks penalties.

Roethlisberger led the NFL in total passing yardage in 2018, but that was propped up by the fact that he threw 675 passes, the fourth-most ever thrown in a single season. Patrick Mahomes, who finished second in yardage, threw 95 fewer passes. Roethlisberger also led the NFL in interceptions, and was toward the middle of the pack in statistics that weren’t dependent on volume. Then Roethlisberger aged a year, lost his top receiver when the team traded Antonio Brown, and developed elbow issues. Roethlisberger’s surgery didn’t end Pittsburgh’s hopes; they probably didn’t have any with Roethlisberger anyway.

In came Rudolph, and in one half, Pittsburgh scored more points than it did in the three with Roethlisberger as quarterback. Rudolph did throw an interception, but, well, you can blame Donte Moncrief for that.

Rudolph’s résumé is strong. He started three years at Oklahoma State, beginning with a season in which he threw for almost 4,000 yards while the Cowboys won 10 games and improving from there. As a senior, Rudolph averaged 10 yards per attempt, threw for 4,904 yards and 37 touchdowns with just nine interceptions. You could call it a system thing, because Oklahoma State is Air Raid–y. But the guy before Rudolph, Daxx Garman, averaged 7.4 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and the guy after Rudolph, Taylor Cornelius, averaged 8.2 yards per attempt with 32 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Rudolph was generally considered the sixth-best quarterback prospect in the 2018 draft—a pretty bad thing to generally say about a player, but more understandable considering five quarterbacks were picked in the first round of that draft. Rudolph was picked in the third round, but was probably a second-round talent, obscured by the fact that so many teams with quarterback needs had picked one of the first five guys. (I actually considered him one of the top five quarterbacks.)

Rudolph’s skill set contains a contradiction. On the one hand, the guy can’t move. He’s 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, and had 28 rushing yards in his Oklahoma State career. (He did, stunningly, scramble for a first down on Sunday. Don’t expect a lot of that.) On the other hand, Rudolph’s greatest trait is his ability to throw the ball deep accurately and without making mistakes. His senior season, 23 of his 37 touchdowns were on “post” and “go” routes, according to Pro Football Focus. His quarterback rating was actually higher on deep throws than on short throws, as he struggled with his short-to-intermediate accuracy. Isn’t that worrisome? That a quarterback who can’t scoot away from pressure needs plays that take a long time to develop? Roethlisberger is a quarterback who avoids pressure by using his body to shed sacks and occasionally waddling into open space.

The good news is, the Steelers seem to understand that. Rudolph’s first big play was a flea-flicker:

And throughout the game, Pittsburgh vastly increased its usage of play-action—a tool which basically always makes offenses more efficient, but has never been a staple of the offense with Roethlisberger. The Steelers, somehow, ran just one play out of play-action in their season-opening loss to the Patriots. Now, they realize play-action is a necessity to buy Rudolph time, and they’re running it.

Pittsburgh’s offense looked more modern once Rudolph got in the game. It was no longer an offense designed specifically for the traits of an aging franchise quarterback, but an offense that proved it could succeed elsewhere.

I’m especially excited about what Rudolph means for Washington, a second-round pick in last year’s draft. Despite the high draft position, Washington barely played as a rookie, catching just 16 passes for 217 yards. With the offseason trade of Antonio Brown, Washington seemed primed to fill in as the no. 2 receiver. Instead, he lost the job to Moncrief, who has more drops than catches through two weeks. There’s not exactly ample evidence to prove that college quarterback-receiver duos bring the best out of each other as pro combos—C.J. Beathard did look good throwing to George Kittle for the 49ers, but then again, so does everybody—but Rudolph the deep-ball dime-disher and Washington the speedster work well together in theory and worked together in practice. Hopefully Washington turns into the player Pittsburgh thought it was drafting last year and takes some of the pressure off of JuJu Smith-Schuster after the departure of Brown.

Will the Steelers bounce back from 0-2 to make the playoffs? Probably not, although that has less to do with Pittsburgh going forward and more to do with the long odds it faces after starting 0-2. But the Steelers won’t be as hapless as projected with Rudolph. The Steelers will look better from Week 3 on than they did in the first two weeks of the season, and will end up better prepared for a future without Big Ben.