First off, understand that no one is saying Ben Roethlisberger is not EXPONENTIALLY better than Mason Rudolph. The Steelers lost a future Hall of Fame QB for the season, and their offense is worse off because of it. But this is also true: Pittsburgh’s offense did nothing in its six quarters under Big Ben this season. Roethlisberger himself is not to blame, but in examining the problems around him, one can find a silver lining to Rudolph’s sudden ascension to the first unit.
In the first half of Pittsburgh’s 28–26 loss at Seattle, the Steelers’ passing game lacked any hint of timing or rhythm. Their passing games occured mostly out of spread formations, including the empty sets that Roethlisberger loves, which isolated the receivers and compelled them to win one-on-one. The problem is that only one of them can—third-year WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. The rest of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps—newly acquired veteran Donte Moncrief, 2018 second-rounder James Washington, 2019 third-rounder Diontae Johnson and slot specialist Ryan Switzer—is unrefined and, thus far, ineffective. Roethlisberger would drop back and wait for something to happen. Usually, the first thing that did was someone from Seattle’s underwhelming pass rush finally getting home. This was how the Steelers looked in Week 1 at New England, as well.
More telling than Pittsburgh’s simplistic gameplan and shoddy execution was Seattle’s approach. Not only did the Seahawks abandon their trademark Cover 3 zones in favor of man-to-man, but they even did it at times out of base 4–3 personnel when the Steelers were playing with three wide receivers (“11” personnel). It’s one thing to go base 4–3 against three receivers—Seattle, unsure about their nickel slot corner situation, actually did that fairly often in Week 1. But it’s a whole other thing to go base 4–3 against three receivers and play man coverage. In doing so, you’re choosing to guard at least one wide receiver with someone other than a cornerback. The Seahawks, who tabbed safety Bradley McDougald for this assignment, were comfortable with this even though they knew Pittsburgh’s spread passing game might force McDougald to cover in space, AND even though they knew (deep down) that their four-man rush was unlikely to generate quick pressure against a stalwart Steelers offensive line. Rarely has such tacit disrespect been shown to an NFL receiving corps. And, by the way, the approach paid off; the Steelers netted 68 yards passing in that half.
When Rudolph took over in the second half, Pittsburgh’s passing game suddenly looked professional. Gone were the iso routes from spread-empty formations, and instead the Steelers employed route combinations that demanded timing-and-rhythm throws. You wouldn’t think the passing game would get more complex once the veteran QB went down. But even though Roethlisberger can conduct any offense, he presumably has a predilection for simpler routes, as they’re friendly to his unique sandlot tendencies. Most quarterbacks, of course, are not talented enough to play that way. This would include Rudolph, whom the Steelers wanted to present with defined reads.
The more intricate passing designs in the second half worked ... sort of. Receivers started getting open, but Rudolph often didn’t see them. Early on, he played too fast, getting the ball out before routes could fully develop. Later in the game, he played too slow, holding the ball and failing to anticipate opportunities. That’s to be expected with a young QB, and it can be corrected with experience and gameplans that are tailored to him and practiced for an entire week.
As a pocket passer, Rudolph has adequate tools. His mechanical details need tightened and his arm strength is just OK, but he’s accurate and, based on how he played at Oklahoma State, likely willing to make all the throws. The throws that Pittsburgh will ask him to make will be—or certainly SHOULD be—highly schemed designs with defined timing. The Steelers haven’t practiced this over the years and so their system will not be mistaken for Kansas City’s or New England’s, but if it looks like it did early in the second half against Seattle, it will be serviceable enough. The necessity of a higher-schemed passing attack became obvious once Rudolph came in, but really it was there all along. Because with Pittsburgh’s callow wide receiving corps, it appears the only chance for offensive success is through scheme.
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