Overreactions from Steelers Nation: Mason Rudolph and backup quarterbacks

Welcome to my weekly edition of “Overreactions from Steelers Nation”. This week, I’m trying to figure out if Steelers fans even watch the games!

My opening line for this weekly column couldn’t be any truer this week, especially in regard to “do people even watch the games?”

For those who missed it, some fans felt so entitled to a win over the 0-8 Detroit Lions that they failed to see the Super Bowl XL Steelers weren’t on the field. Heck, the 2021 version of this team was largely missing too. Already down JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt most of the year, the Steelers entered Sunday minus Chase Claypool and one other big name: Ben Roethlisberger.

I saw the breaking news around 8pm Saturday night. I instantly knew that Mason Rudolph was going to start, but even in that moment, I saw fans crying like babies at the thought. I even saw one begging the team to go get Marcus Mariota from the Raiders, as if they could even do that (or would want to with less than 24 hours before kickoff!)

What ensued were memories of Mason Rudolph as a starter. If Sunday’s tie with the Lions reminded you of those previous games, they probably should. For once, I’d love to see what Rudolph could do with a fully healthy team. As was the case back in 2019, last season’s Week 17 game against Cleveland, or even yesterday: he did not.

Losing both starting guards, T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, and for a short spell, Najee Harris – all due to in-game injuries – certainly hurt the team’s chances of victory regardless of the opponent.

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I would even argue that Ben Roethlisberger may have struggled, in less-than-ideal weather conditions too, when the veteran quarterback has had only one 300+ yard passing game all season and only two where he’s thrown for multiple touchdowns.

That said, here’s some other things Mason Rudolph didn’t do to lose the game against Detroit:

  • Give up a 28-yard touchdown run (to a backup running back)
  • Give up a 42-yard touchdown run (to a backup running back)
  • Give up 114 yards of rushing by halftime
  • Commit a holding penalty which negated a Najee Harris touchdown run
  • Give up a 48-yard punt return (stopped by the punter himself, Pressley Harvin)
  • Call three consecutive pass plays in the red zone* (half blame, which may have been an RPO)
  • Allow a 38-yard kickoff return to start the second half
  • Commit offensive pass interference on 3rd-and-5 from the Detroit 33
  • Fumble a 39-yard pass reception in overtime, which may have setup field goal range for Chris Boswell
  • Commit a holding penalty which negated a Minkah Fitzpatrick interception
  • Lose 19 yards on a snap over his head – one of many bad snaps in the game
  • Commit a holding penalty on a punt return, losing ten more yards
  • Fumble the ball with 15 seconds remaining, in field goal range
  • Make the above call to go for another play rather than attempt a ~58-yard field goal (which would’ve been the longest in Heinz Field history – 56 yards is the record held by Boswell)
  • Have your backup quarterback attempt 50 passes in constant rain

That’s not to say that Mason Rudolph was perfect. Here are some of the positives and negatives that could be attributed to his play:

  • Missing Ray-Ray McCloud short on a five-yard skip in the end zone
  • Miscommunication with Kallen Ballage, who he went to twice – the second leading to an interception
  • Handled several high/bad snaps with poise
  • Did not get sacked once in 87 plays
  • Led an opening possession scoring drive for a touchdown
  • Scrambled four times for 36 yards, despite being labeled “immobile”

The latter half of these bullet points justify Mason’s ability to jump right into the game with fewer than 24 hours’ notice than not. He did benefit from Ben Roethlisberger sitting out of practice twice during the week, but Rudolph had only started one game over the last two seasons, the aforementioned Week 17 game against Cleveland.

I get that some fans are frustrated at not defeating a winless team. That’s not lost on me. However, some of that frustration has undoubtedly boiled over to a backup quarterback who shouldn’t be the scapegoat for a tie game.

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Also, some fans, and even media, are still of a mindset that Dwayne Haskins was a better answer. I actually heard a local radio host claim Haskins would’ve given the Steelers a better shot five yards out, with his feet.

The narrative that Haskins is a mobile quarterback is a stereotype derived from other quarterbacks, namely those who also came from Ohio State: Haskins is a pocket passer. His 40-time at the 2019 NFL Combine was the slowest among all quarterbacks.

After seeing Rudolph play from under center, bootleg, scramble, and even truck a defender who tried to put a lick on him, can we honestly believe Haskins would’ve done differently? I think not.

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The core of the blame in this game isn’t on a backup quarterback who is in the middle of an already struggling offense. In my opinion, this was a total team loss.

The number of injuries were something to overcome, but even at that point, the Steelers defense was gashed for 16 points – the most the Lions had been scoring all season – and done so on the ground, with impressive fashion. Missed tackles, blown assignments, inability to get off of blocks, and more, doomed the “kiss your sister” result.

Special Teams is also to blame for setting up good field position several times for Detroit. In fact, it’s special teams play from the Lions that we can all thank for not having a loss, as backup kicker Ryan Santoso missed a PAT and what would have been a game-winning 48-yard field goal in overtime.

The result of the game isn’t ideal, but it’s also not an indictment that Rudolph is a terrible quarterback. 18 years of having a Hall of Famer will get you spoiled, but the reality is, Ben Roethlisberger’s shoes will be difficult to fill no matter who steps into his spot.

I feel Rudolph did an acceptable job given all of the circumstances.

Look at it this way: would you rather have a situation like the Jets, Dolphins, Saints, Texans, Bears, or… even the Lions?

The Jets’ Mike White threw four interceptions in a 45-17 drubbing by the Bills on Sunday. The Arizona Cardinals watched Colt McCoy and Chris Streveler struggle to complete 17 passes for 143 yards and no scores in that offense.

Furthermore, the Cleveland Browns completed only 19 passes for 154 yards in a loss, and of course, the Lions starting QB Jared Goff completed only 14 passes for 114 yards, as Detroit avoided throwing the ball for much of the game.

Rudolph’s final numbers: 30/50 for 242 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Not fantastic by any means, but that should’ve been enough for the rest of the team to overcome. Unfortunately, three turnovers in the plus-minus column is something most NFL teams are unable to win games with, and the Steelers should be fortunate they at least came away with a tie (if for anything, the standings).

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