With only two games played into the 2019 season, fans were possibly packing it in on the Pittsburgh Steelers early. Odds are against teams who start 0-2 to make the playoffs, and with their starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger being lost to a season-ending injury, it appears that there’s no salvaging this season.
However, when one door shuts another opens, as second-year backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, already figured to be the future of the franchise, stepped in admirably during his first-ever NFL action on Sunday. Perhaps, we may ponder, the dropoff from a not-100% Big Ben to a hungry, 110% Rudolph, may just be the shot in the arm the Steelers offense needed.
Of course, there’s more to the story as well.
It's far from over
There are still fourteen games left in the season: plenty of time for other stuff to happen. While many are already anointing the Baltimore Ravens as something special, they too only turned their 2018 season around midway when swapping Joe Flacco for then rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Baltimore would make the playoffs, winning the AFC North.
However, defending that title may be more daunting of a task as one may think. While the Ravens have looked sharp thus far in 2019, they have done so against the likes of lowly Miami and Arizona; hardly the quality coached franchises the Steelers have squared off against like New England and Seattle.
That bodes well if the Steelers can get into gear. It’s anyone’s guess what the Cleveland Browns will do, as their Monday Night Football scuffle with the New York Jets ended with a victory: yet it was an ugly victory, with the Browns being unable to put away the Jets second or third string quarterbacks, despite the New York offense struggling mightily.
The other part of the equation? An equally 0-2 Cincinnati Bengals team that also lost to Seattle and then to the Steelers upcoming opponent this weekend, the San Francisco 49ers.
That could all be the same "September Football" that I use as an excuse for the Steelers too, but it's not something to ignore and should be monitored going forward as those trends could bode well for Pittsburgh.
AFC North is the path to the playoffs
What this all amounts to is a division up for grabs: meaning it can also fall into the Steelers hands much in the same way it did the Ravens last year, should one of the other teams stumble and the Steelers stay the course.
That will depend on the offense, which I’ve given the brunt of the blame for the Steelers defensive woes. Unable to maintain any time of possession on the offensive side of the ball has killed the Steelers defense by keeping them on the field longer, forcing substitutions which help create mismatches and blown plays. (See Anthony Chickillo’s missed tackle on Rashaad Penny’s 37-yard touchdown run last Sunday.)
Key penalties, including an overturned pass interference call on Terrell Edmunds also hurt the Steelers defense, who otherwise forced the Seahawks to settle for a punt, and also an earlier field goal attempt (negated by Dan McCullers penalty on the snapper).
That 14-point swing didn’t help matters, but it’s key to showing that the defense can make stops. They did so at times against New England despite the game being a blowout. They held Seattle to 5/13 on third down last week, and as they mature, with an assist by a Steelers offense hopefully capable of doing more than going 3-and-out, could very well help them establish a favorable playoff position within the AFC North.
The new chess piece
That was before adding Minkah Fitzpatrick on Monday night.
The Steelers secondary gets an immediate boost by a "play now" player; actually not just a "player" but a play-maker in Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is a versatile chess piece that can be positioned all over the defensive backfield. The move helps the Steelers with depth at a time when starter Sean Davis, who typically never leaves the field, has been nursing injuries.
Fitzpatrick can slide right in and contribute today. If and when Davis returns, he too is versatile and can be moved around, as evidenced by his playing nickel corner his rookie season, before moving strong safety and then free safety in 2018. Each safety can help support other young players such as Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds, perhaps making their own play-making potential shine.
A new gunslinger in town
Make no mistake about it, the Fitzpatrick trade is a win-now move by the Steelers to shore up their defense in an effort to support new starting quarterback Mason Rudolph, who of course, all of this ultimately rides on.
Mason Rudolph was thought to have a first-round grade in a draft class which saw five other passers selected in that first round ahead of him. Falling into round three, the Steelers made a trade and sprinted to the podium to pickup a player many felt the organization fell in love with during the process.
Now it’s time to see if their evaluations were correct. Thus far, it appears it is.
Rudolph looks far more comfortable and efficient than most backups, given our limited time seeing him on film. He ousted last year’s backup, Joshua Dobbs, from the top spot behind Roethlisberger and gave the Steelers staff so much confidence in him that they dealt Dobbs to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a future draft pick.
This Sunday is no short task for Rudolph, however, as he travels to the West Coast to take on a 2-0 San Francisco 49ers team. Yet, if history has taught us anything, Ben Roethlisberger entered his rookie season deep on the depth chart only to ascend to a starting role following injuries to the team’s other quarterbacks.
Big Ben would never relinquish that position ever since.
Now Rudolph enters a similar role where he can potentially be the savior of the Steelers season, as a loss would truly put their year in jeopardy but a streak of a few wins against upcoming opponents the 49ers, the Bengals, and the Ravens, could easily put them right back in the conversation: and make Rudolph the talk of the town.