The news that Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on an elbow injury has dented the Steelers' already-shaky playoff chances in 2019. After an 0-2 start, the Steelers turn to second-year signal-caller Mason Rudolph and, while everyone is down on them right now, could he help turn their fortunes around? At the very least, the Steelers are going to get a long look at him and see if he has what it takes to be their quarterback of the future.
On an admittedly small sample size, Roethlisberger was not playing well so far this season, producing a PFF passing grade of just 49.5 on 62 dropbacks. On throws 10-plus yards downfield, he was just 4-for-18 for 109 yards and an interception and just 1-for-10 for 45 yards and a pick when looking at throws 20-plus yards downfield. A lot was made of his 2018 season because he threw for a league-leading 5,129 yards in the regular season, but that was more about volume than anything else. He led the league with 675 passing attempts, with no other quarterback even reaching 640, and his yards per attempt average of 7.6 was tied for 11th in the league. Not bad, but not at the same level as his yardage would suggest. Most importantly, he ranked just 16th in PFF passing grade, with a mark of 75.2. Roethlisberger will be 38 years old when the 2020 season kicks off, so getting a long look at Rudolph is not a bad thing.
Rudolph out-performed Roethlisberger on Sunday, producing a PFF passing grade of 65.1 on 20 dropbacks. That’s hardly setting the world on fire, but it’s not bad, and certainly not bad enough that the Steelers shouldn’t have some optimism that he can deliver some big performances throughout the season. He attempted three passes 20-plus yards downfield, completing one for 45 yards. And when looking back at the preseason and his college career, downfield is where Rudolph excelled. One of the top quarterbacks in the NFL this preseason, he went 3-for-10 for 116 yards and two touchdowns on throws 20-plus yards downfield. In his final season at Oklahoma State in 2017, he ranked second in the nation with 1,712 yards and third with 17 touchdowns on throws 20-plus yards downfield.
One thing that hurt his grade in college was inconsistency though, and that’s something he’s going to have to improve upon in the NFL. Despite producing a PFF grade of 88.3 in his final season as a Cowboy, he had three games where he produced sub 60.0 grades. That’s something that was true on Sunday and while he had some solid throws, including the touchdown to Vance McDonald on 1st-and-goal with 5:37 left in the game, there were also some poor decisions.
After the Steelers got within two with 11:16 left in the fourth quarter, they attempted to tie the game with a two-point conversion, but Rudolph was late with the throw across the middle, resulting in an interception. There is a window to complete that pass in the end zone if Rudolph gets the ball out quicker, but in taking too long to get the ball out, it allowed Delano Hill to make a play.
You can’t expect him to be perfect, especially coming in off the bench, so we should expect him to improve after his encouraging preseason. There’s also a side story here, and one that many fantasy football analysts will be all over this week: What it means for wide receiver James Washington.
Washington was one of the stars of preseason, finishing August with the sixth-highest PFF receiving grade (79.9) of all wide receivers who saw at least 10 targets and racking up 208 yards and two touchdowns. He was a big-play threat, too, with his 146 yards on receptions 20-plus yards downfield the most in the NFL in preseason. Washington was Rudolph’s favorite target in college, with the receiver racking up 19 receptions for 815 yards and two touchdowns just on throws 20-plus yards downfield in his final season in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
We already saw what the duo can do this preseason, too, with them hooking up for a 41-yard score on 1st-and-10 with two minutes left in the first quarter of the Steelers' third preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. On the play, Washington beat the cornerback on the post, and Rudolph delivered the ball exactly where it needed to be for six. So far this season, Washington has been targeted eight times, but only four of those have been catchable, with all four resulting in a first down. Through two games, he has been out-targeted by Donte Moncrief, but Moncrief has dropped two of the five catchable passes thrown his way, with one of those drops resulting in an interception. His three receptions have totaled just seven yards and no first downs. With Rudolph at quarterback and his obvious rapport with Washington, it wouldn’t be a shock to anyone to see Washington see significantly more targets throughout the rest of 2019. Get ready to see the two connect for some big plays like they were back in the Big 12.