Mad at Mason? Reasons Steelers fans should direct their anger elsewhere

There has been a seemingly endless slew of fans who have thrown their hate toward the Steelers quarterbacks this season. However, many of them aren’t making the proper links to problems that have plagued Pittsburgh’s offense for the better part of two seasons: and it’s not the passers who should take the brunt of the fault.

On Tuesday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin held his weekly press conference and started it off with a bang by announcing that Ben Roethlisberger would not be participating in Sunday’s 2020 season finale against the Cleveland Browns.

For the Steelers, their destiny is already locked up. They secured a playoff berth weeks ago and with their come-from-behind win over the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday, won their division.

Hence why Tomlin is sitting Ben – but that’s not the news that drove Steelers Nation into a tizzy: it’s who is playing in his place. As no surprise to anyone who follows the team, Mason Rudolph is the backup behind Ben. Therefore, he was named Sunday’s starter.

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That hasn’t sat well with fickle fans who have drug Rudolph through the mud since last season. But I believe they have done so unfairly. They are conjuring memories of last season, where Rudolph and Devlin Hodges played at the position, making mention of how “poorly” they played.

That poor play was oftentimes with a band of players who weren’t even on the practice squad weeks earlier (such as RB Kerrith Whyte or WR Deon Cain). In fact, Rudolph’s worse game came in a short week of preparation at Cleveland, where he threw four interceptions.

The Steelers offense ran 74 plays that night with JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner each leaving the game early (playing 22 and 13 snaps respectively). Fans may also recall Diontae Johnson leaving midway through the game as well, “bleeding from his ear”.

Pittsburgh’s offense turned to receivers Johnny Holton and Tevin Jones, and running backs Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds, and Tony Brooks-James within that game as the supporting cast surrounding Rudolph. (Jones was the target on not one, but two of Mason’s picks, and was promptly cut along with Brooks-James shortly thereafter.)

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Rudolph easily had his worst game to date, snapping a three-game Steelers winning streak that had been holding on by a thread since the second-year quarterback had returned from concussion protocol after a brutal hit in Week 5 by Ravens safety Earl Thomas. He had looked gun-shy at times and the offense was criticized for playing “dink and dunk”.

If that criticism sounds familiar, it should: it’s the same venom flying in the face of Big Ben and the Steelers offense during their recent three-game losing streak, as well as the first half failures last Sunday against the Colts.

Yet, the same critics aren’t connecting the dots as to why the offense struggled in both season: Randy Fichter’s play calling.

Rather than throw Rudolph, who, save for that Browns game, threw 13 touchdowns to 5 interceptions otherwise, I’m starting to believe he was setup for failure. In much the same way fans were saying Roethlisberger was “finished” for not taking shots downfield, many are saying Rudolph doesn’t have the arm strength for the same passes.

Some are calling for Joshua Dobbs or Devlin Hodges (“Duck”) to play instead on Sunday. Duck had caught the same flack for not stretching the field as well as ignoring the middle of the gridiron. Others still aren’t aware that Paxton Lynch was cut prior to the season starting and still want to see him play too!

These fans can’t see it clearly all points back to Fichtner.

Perhaps the short pass game was designed to protect his quarterbacks as well as hide what might be a suspect run game. But the fact remains that the poor play calling has remained the same regardless of who is under center. Fans were calling for Roethlisberger’s retirement as short as a few days ago, while they’re also all over Rudolph as not being a potential heir to Big Ben’s throne.

Both of those trains of thought are flawed as is calling for Dobbs or Hodges to play in their place.

Dobbs lost the backup job in the 2019 preseason when he failed to show more promise than Rudolph. With each, along with Hodges, playing almost the same amount of preseason snaps, it was clear that Mason Rudolph was the best choice to be Ben’s backup. Dobbs ran 80 plays that preseason while Rudolph operated 76 and Hodges played 74 – an unusual amount for the “camp arm” QB4, which means Steelers scouts started to believe Hodges had more upside than Dobbs at the time.

  • Rudolph would finish the preseason with a 65.1% completion rate and a TD-to-INT ratio of 4:1. He took two sacks and had a 113.3 QB rating.
  • Dobbs would finish dead last with a 0:2 TD:INT ratio, completing only 54.5% of his passes for a 57.6 rating, behind Hodges’ 73.4 rating and 2:1 ratio.

Dobbs would be sent packing in a trade to quarterback-desperate Jacksonville, who didn’t see the need to retain him in 2020. That’s why Dobbs is back on the roster and as a more senior member of the team, took the QB3 clipboard duties. (He’s also a legit rocket scientist, as noted everywhere, which likely bodes well in having him help on the sidelines too.)

Yet fans are quick to throw Rudolph under the bus, begging for Dobbs or Hodges to get their shots. Dobbs had his earlier, and lost it. Hodges did as well, sliding into a three-game losing streak at the end of 2019 which saw the Steelers go from a playoff hopeful to out of the picture entirely.

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During Duck’s slide, he was benched against the Jets in favor of Rudolph, who showed a resurgence in confidence and ability entering five minutes into the second quarter and before breaking his collarbone in the fourth. He would complete 70% of his passes including a 29-yard touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson as part of a late second quarter surge that saw the Steelers enter halftime tied at 10-all. (They would eventually lose 16-10.)

It stands to reason that 2019 just wasn’t Rudolph’s year. After a major concussion laid him out on the field, he also had the helmet swinging incident with Cleveland’s Myles Garrett and was benched after two quarters following that situation.

After sitting most of 2020, Rudolph is the best option for Sunday’s game. Statistically he’s proven he’s a better option than Dobbs or Hodges, and as the quarterback who gets the most reps other than Roethlisberger in each week’s practice, he’s best suited to take the reigns.

It’s also a chance at redemption for what happened the last time he was in Cleveland, and gives the Steelers brass a glimpse at what they may need to do in this year’s upcoming draft. It’s no secret that Ben Roethlisberger is getting up in age, playing in what is his 18th season. It’s time to rest Ben for the games that count (playoffs) and see if Rudolph has what it takes to be his successor.

However, I also hope that Fichtner’s shackles come off of this offense. Otherwise, everyone will continue to believe that Mason doesn’t have the goods to deliver, and like other quarterbacks taken in the same draft (the Jets Sam Darnold for example) he too will be setup for failure.

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