Upon Review: Grading the 2023 Steelers quarterback group

Steel City Underground presents it’s ‘Upon Review’ series of Pittsburgh Steelers positional group grades for the 2023 NFL season with statistical analysis and performance reviews.

Entering the 2023 NFL regular season, there was optimism that second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett would be the starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers and step into the role with the type of success he’d offered in several games in his rookie season but with a full off-season of extra training giving him additional skills and poise. Mitchell Trubisky was given the nod by coaching staff to back Pickett as QB2. Mason Rudolph, who had very few in-game snaps over the previous couple of seasons, would enter the season as the third-string QB, or emergency quarterback.

The Steelers experienced a turntable situation, though, that resulted in all three quarterbacks running the offense due to injury and poor overall performance.

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Kenny Pickett

Pickett, who received AP Offensive Rookie of the Year votes in 2022, certainly appeared ready to take on the load of being the Steelers starting quarterback after Pittsburgh went undefeated in the preseason. His opportunities during that period were limited, but he showed good awareness and the ability to throw the deep ball.

Pickett ended up starting the same amount of games as QB1 as he did his rookie season (12), though, due to injuries and performance issues that opened the door for Trubisky and Rudolph.

While injuries are difficult to predict and plan for, as a player, personal performance is not.

In 12 games, Pickett’s record was 7-5. He completed 201-of-324 passes (62.0%) for 2,070 yards, and six touchdowns to four interceptions. His first-down conversion rate while passing was just 40.3. He threw for a 6.2 yards per attempt average and 172.5 yards per game. Sacked 23 times, Pickett’s final QB rating was 38.1.

Statistically, Pickett declined in several areas in 2023, when compared to his rookie statistics. The thought was that Pickett was adversely affected by offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s play-calling, but he continued to struggle handling pressure, making reads, and consistently completing passes to targets when he was on the field after the Steelers fired Canada.

Ultimately, his struggles and injuries forced the Steelers to move to Trubisky and then later to Rudolph. Despite being “healthy” at the end of the season, Rudolph was the more trusted and reliable quarterback of the group.

His final grade: C

Pickett plateaued and that ultimately created a situation during free agency for the Steelers to release Trubisky and sign Russell Wilson on a one-year veteran-friendly deal. Pickett was traded, allegedly at his personal request, to the Philadelphia Eagles after Pittsburgh brought Wilson in.

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Mitchell Trubisky

Trubisky got an opportunity in 2023 to redeem himself after a lackluster 2022 season with the Steelers when Pickett was injured. In his two starts, though, Trubisky struggled to the tune of two losses.

On the season, Trubisky completed 67-of-107 passes (62.6%) for 632 yards, four touchdowns to five interceptions. He was able to convert 36 first downs through the air, but had just a 5.9 yards-per-attempt average, 126.4 yards per game passing average, and finished the season with a 34.6 quarterback rating.

It was clear that Trubisky was not what Pittsburgh needed in a veteran quarterback to mentor Pickett or as their backup, let alone the starting quarterback.

His final grade: D

The evidence was clear: the Steelers were not going to get what they’d hoped for from Trubisky. Upon his release, he was picked up by the Buffalo Bills for his second stint with that team.

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Mason Rudolph

Rudolph did get redemption in 2023. As a Pittsburgh quarterback, Rudolph had drawn some ire and malignant from Steelers fans for previous play in place of an injured Ben Roethlisberger. Much of that was as a result of discouragement by fans over the win-loss record of the 2019 NFL season. Statistically, however, Rudolph was a much better quarterback than many would accept.

Was Rudolph a top-tier starter that could be Roethlisberger’s heir? That was a looming, repeating question that nagged everyone. It was difficult to place full confidence in Rudolph.

It wasn’t just fans who had mulled these things over. Obviously, if the Steelers organization was sold on Rudolph as a starter, they likely would not have brought in Trubisky and may not have drafted Pickett.

Rudolph got a late-season shot to shine in 2023 and took full advantage of the opportunity by winning all four games (3 starts) he played in during the regular season, helping secure a wild card spot for Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

In those games, Rudolph completed 55-of-74 passes, as the Steelers utilized the run game more heavily, for 719 yards, 3 touchdowns and zero interceptions. His success rate at converting first downs via the pass was 47.5 percent. Rudolph also averaged 9.7 yards per passing attempt, 179.8 yards per game, for a rating of 70.6.

His final grade: B+

Some may feel Rudolph got graded too low based on the emotion that he created by bringing the Steelers from the brink of a losing season to a playoff berth. Had Rudolph had a greater sample size of consistent play over more than the three games he started, he could have moved up the grade chart.

As it is, Rudolph performed well enough that he earned himself a new contract with the Tennessee Titans for 2024. The Steelers, with just Wilson left in the quarterback room, acquired Justin Fields from the Chicago Bears. The Steelers are highly likely to add at least one more quarterback to their roster for the upcoming 2024 season.

Final positional group grade: C-

The above-mentioned trio struggled to create relationships with each other in an environment of the Steelers  rebuilding their offensive line, coordinator issues, and low offensive output through much of the season.

Note: The QB rating used for analysis was ESPN’s “total quarterback rating,” as used since 2006. We did not share rushing statistics, which do factor into ESPN’s rating system.

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