The Pittsburgh Steelers found out they can win a game with Mason Rudolph as their quarterback.
Making his second career start in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger, Rudolph threw for 229 yards and two touchdowns Monday night as the Steelers rolled to a 27-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.
“Can’t say enough about Mason,” coach Mike Tomlin said of the second-year pro. “We gave him a game ball in there for his first win. So, I thought that was appropriate.”
Now, the question is if the Steelers can win consistently with Rudolph running the offense.
Beating the Bengals is one thing. They are 0-4 and appear on the road to nowhere under first-year coach Zac Taylor.
The Steelers, of course, aren’t much better at 1-3 and they have never made the playoffs in a season that started with three straight losses. However, Rudolph at least gave the Steelers hope they can contend in the AFC North, a division that may be the weakest in the NFL.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner deserves plenty of credit for Rudolph’s showing as he tailored the game plan to take pressure off the young quarterback.
The Steelers used the wildcat formation to get the ball directly to running back Jaylen Samuels, an idea that seemed to surprise the Bengals and keep their defense on its heels throughout the night. Samuels even threw three passes out of the wildcat, completing them all for 31 yards.
Fichtner also simplified the passing game with a steady series of dinks and dumps. While that may not have been as exciting as watching Roethlisberger throwing a series of deep balls, it worked quite well.
Rudolph was efficient as he completed 24 of 28 attempts, threw for two touchdowns and was not intercepted or sacked. He finished with a 124.6 passer rating.
That was a substantial improvement over his first start in Week 3 when he had an 81.4 rating in a 24-20 loss to the 49ers at San Francisco.
“Just one more week of Randy molding the game plan to me and what I like,” Rudolph said, referencing to what he felt caused his better performance. “It is a big switch when you have a guy who has been here for 16 years and likes what he likes and kind of coaches one way and then has the younger guy come in. He has been unbelievably open to suggestions on my end and so we are going to continue to work and continue to gel with this younger group.”
The Steelers were enamored by Rudolph’s strong arm when they selected him in the third round of the 2018 draft from Oklahoma State. General manager Kevin Colbert said they had put a first-round grade on Rudolph and felt fortunate to land him two rounds later.
However, the Steelers’ offense performed well Monday night in large part because they didn’t rely on Rudolph making big throws. He threw just three deep passes in his 28 attempts and 167 of the 229 passing yards – 72.9 percent – after the catch. And 18 of his 23 completions were for 10 yards or less.
“I kind of had more of a philosophy of taking what the defense gives you and we had our chances to take our shots,” Rudolph said. “Backs were in the spots all week. Jaylen Samuels and James Conner did a great job of running after the catch and making the guys miss in space.’
However, Rudolph also showed tantalizing glimpses of being able to successful on deep balls in his very limited chances, including throwing a 43-yard touchdown to rookie Diontae Johnson in the third quarter that raised the lead to 24-3.
“Learning experiences man,” Rudolph said. “From your vantage point, you learn, and you understand that you have to let it fly a lot of times when guys are neck and neck and trust your guy to win.”
Rudolph took a big step Monday night toward earning the Steelers’ trust that they can still win without Roethlisberger, who sustained a season-ending elbow injury in a Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks that required surgery.
“Unbelievable team win,” Rudolph said. “A lot of leadership in the locker room and guys that know how to win and guys who have won a lot of games in their careers. We stuck together all week even with the rough start. Our message all week was stack one (win) and then start stacking more. That is the plan moving forward and we have a heck of a group of guys that are going to do that.”