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Film Room: Why Mason Rudolph and James Washington Are Ineffective

The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback-wide receiver duo are still trying to make things click.

When news came across the wire that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, making him ineligible to play against the Lions, many wondered if this was finally Mason Rudolph and James Washington’s time to shine.

Things got off to an exciting start. On the first play of the game, there was an RPO from Rudolph to Washington for a solid gain of six yards. A few plays later, Rudolph targeted his former college teammate once again on a lofting throw down the left sideline, but the pass was under-thrown. 

The good news for the Steelers was that Lions corner Amani Oruwariye never turned around to locate the football, thus forcing the officials to call defensive pass interference. The 29-yard penalty would set the Steelers up on the brink of red zone territory. A few plays later, on third and eight, Rudolph would find a wide-open Washington in the right corner of the end zone for six after a blown coverage from the Detroit secondary, their second scoring hookup in the pros.

After the first drive, it seemed like this was it. This was going to be the electric coming out party for the former 2018 draft picks that the Steelers have been waiting for. Unfortunately, for all parties involved, things just unraveled from there for both parties and coincidentally, the Steelers offense. Washington would go the rest of the half without even being targeted while the Steelers passing offense ran primarily through Ray-Ray McCloud and Diontae Johnson.

On the Steelers first drive in the second half, Rudolph would take a shot to the left corner of the end zone with Washington well covered on the play. The ball was under-thrown again, a familiar theme throughout the day on his deep ball attempts in less than ideal weather conditions. 

Washington was able to go up and turn into a defensive back on the play, batting the ball away and preventing a nightmare scenario, an interception. Rudolph might have had an argument for an offside penalty resulting in a free play but this was a risky decision inside the red zone.

On the following play, Rudolph would scramble for a first down, setting up first and goal from the five yard line. A play call that many question followed - an RPO with James Washington coming underneath to the right side of the field. 

This one was tipped by Derrick Barnes at the line of scrimmage but even if this was completed, Washington was going to be immediately punished underneath. This was an odd play design that was just poorly drawn up, especially given how wide the outside line backer is lined up, easily affecting the passing lane. 

The Steelers wound up having to settle for a field goal after three straight incomplete passes.

Fast forward to the next Steelers possession, facing a third and four just outside of field goal range, Rudolph elected to take another deep shot to Washington. 

With Detroit playing 1 cross coverage, electing to drive on the McCloud crossing route underneath, it left Washington single covered without help overtop. However, Amani Owuwariye was able to stay on top throughout the entirety of the go route, limiting any space for Rudolph to fit the ball in. 

The decision to take a shot there, even on third down, is the right one given the type of coverage that Detroit employed. Maybe the smarter decision here would have been to try going Johnson's way, who was also single covered by Mark Gilbert on the play. If you noticed, Johnson wins with a quick release and creates separation after stacking his man downfield. 

The Steelers offense found themselves in a similar dilemma on the following possession. Another vital third down play, Washington drew Gilbert in single coverage without much safety help overtop. However, he was unable to stack his man and the ball was under-thrown in the process. 

Washington slammed on the brakes to come back for the football, but he extended his left arm to push off towards the sideline. While he didn't get two feet down in bounds, the officials deemed it enough contact to call offensive pass interference, pushing the Steelers offense back ten yards. 

With Detroit opting to play their base cover 1 again, Rudolph could have tried working something underneath to Johnson at the bottom of the screen but instead, trusted Washington to win the matchup vertically. 

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On the Steelers final drive before overtime, Rudolph would look to Washington one final time. After corralling another errant snap from Kendrick Green, Rudolph tried to squeeze the ball into Washington on a slant route. Thrown slightly behind, it was Gilbert once again who was able to bat the pass away, forcing a punt. 

This one stung just a bit more because Rudolph and the offense only needed one first down to get into Chris Boswell's range for a game winning field goal. You couldn't ask for better field position in this situation, already across midfield. But the offense went three and out, leaving the defense to make an end of the game stand. 

The final lines for both were largely unimpressive. Rudolph would finish the game 30/50 for 242 yards with one touchdown and one interception for a 70.6 passer rating. Washington didn't record a catch following his opening drive touchdown. He caught just two passes for 15 yards and a score.

On a day where both Roethlisberger and Chase Claypool were unable to go, the Steelers needed more from both players. Not only in an effort to extend their four-game winning streak but to showcase what they could offer the organization moving forward. 

Given their familiarity with one another, it's understandable that in several of the key moments throughout the game, Rudolph looked to Washington for plays. There were times during the game where it seemed like Rudolph preferred Washington's matchup more than Johnson's. However, based on the film alone, Johnson was able to create much more separation throughout the game. 

You could argue that he should have received a couple more looks, even beyond his team leading 13 targets.

With Roethlisberger likely retiring after the season comes to a end, Rudolph is the odds on favorite to start the opener next season. While he has shown strides with his pocket awareness and his willingness to push the ball down the field a bit more, Rudolph's still hasn't shown any real reason to believe in him as the answer to the quarterback position. 

Facing a Lions team that came in allowing an absurd 9.3 yards per attempt, Rudolph finished the day with 4.8 YPA. He struggled throwing the deep ball and the offense only scored 16 points on 13 possessions under his command. 

There's no doubt that the last minute start notification and the weather did him no favors, but this was a performance that he wants back. As a backup quarterback in this league, you only get so many chances, and when they arise, you've got to capitalize on them. 

Washington has been buried on the Steelers depth chart and has had to fight for targets over the past two seasons. On Sunday, he had a real opportunity to prove that he's a capable top three receiver but was largely ineffective. Even with a banged up secondary full of reserves, Detroit opted to single cover him most of the game without much help over top and Washington never made them pay. 

Drafted as a deep threat, Washington has only reeled in 23 of his 72 deep targets more than 15 yards down the field since 2018. Five of those going for a touchdown and five of those throw were picked off. His struggles to beat press coverage and then separate against NFL corners has been his main downfall.

Next year's Steelers team will look different and it's certain that Kevin Colbert and company will look to upgrade the quarterback position and receiver room again in the offseason. Both Rudolph and Washington are quality depth players but when the Steelers selected both on day two of the 2018 NFL draft, they envisioned a lot more production than what they've gotten.

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