December 6, 2021

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The Sports Fanatics

Ben Roethlisberger out vs. Lions: Here’s what the Steelers’ offense will look like with Mason Rudolph

Pittsburgh Steelers fans were hit with alarming news Saturday night when it was revealed that Ben Roethlisberger will miss Sunday’s home game against the Lions. Roethlisberger is on the team’s COVID-19 list after reportedly self-reporting having symptoms related to the virus. 

Making his 10th career start on Sunday is Mason Rudolph, the Steelers’ 2018 third-round pick. With Roethlisberger out for most of the 2019 season with a severe elbow injury, Rudolph went 5-3 as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback. In just his second start, Rudolph went 24 of 28 with two touchdown passes in a win over the Bengals. Rudolph was poised to lead the Steelers to an upset win over Baltimore the following week before he was knocked out of the game by then-Ravens safety Earl Thomas. The hit left Rudolph inactive for the following week’s game. 

Rudolph wasn’t as effective upon his return from being in the league’s concussion protocol. His rocky play (which included a four-interception performance in a Thursday night loss in Cleveland) led to the Steelers inserting Delvin “Duck” Hodges at quarterback late in the season. But after early success, Hodges’ play faltered during the final weeks of the season. With the Steelers’ playoff hopes on the line, Rudolph replaced Hodges in New York in Week 16. Rudolph played well, but he was unable to lead the Steelers to a come-from-behind win against the Jets. 

With Roethlisberger healthy, Rudolph’s only start last season came during Pittsburgh’s Week 17 game against the Browns. After struggling early, Rudolph threw two late touchdown passes to pull the Steelers to within two points. His incomplete pass on Pittsburgh’s two-point conversion attempt led to the Steelers leaving Cleveland with a 24-22 loss. In defeat Rudolph threw for a career-high 315 yards. He also took (and completed) several deep shots after being criticized for rarely doing so during the 2019 season. 

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Rudolph, who signed a one-year extension this offseason that keeps him Pittsburgh through 2022, beat out Dwayne Haskins for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart despite having a less than impressive preseason. He has yet to attempt a pass this season. 

Rudolph has extensive experience playing with the majority of the Steelers’ starting offense. He has had extensive practice time with the Steelers’ starting offense this season, as Roethlisberger typically rests during Pittsburgh’s first practice. Roethlisberger has also missed practice time with upper body issues, giving Rudolph even more time with Pittsburgh’s starting offense. Given Rudolph’s experience within the Steelers’ offense, don’t expect offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s game plan to change much on Sunday, if at all. 

Rudolph’s top-two receivers during the 2019 season were Diontae Johnson and James Washington. Johnson continues to be the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver, while Washington will get extended playing time on Sunday with Chase Claypool out with a toe injury. Rudolph and Washington put up prolific numbers together during their time at Oklahoma State. That chemistry was on display during the 2019 season, as Washington led the Steelers in receiving yards. 

Like Roethlisberger, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Rudolph is a high-percentage passer who likes to get the ball to his early reads. He threw a slew of passes to his running backs in 2019, which could mean a big day in the passing game for Najee Harris and Kalen Ballage. Given Harris’ foot injury (which limited during practice earlier in the week), expect a bigger contribution from Ballage in both the running and the passing game. Pittsburgh may also activate Anthony McFarland, who has yet to play this season after spending time on injured reserve. 

Rudolph will surely look to ride the momentum that is tight end Pat Freiermuth, who enters Sunday’s game with three touchdown catches in his last two games. Rudolph will also have fellow tight end Eric Ebron at his disposal after Ebron missed the last two games with injuries. 

Not known for his running, Rudolphs is capable of extending plays while getting outside of the pocket. Rudolph will have to be cognizant of the Lions’ pass rush, as he will play behind a vastly different offensive line than the one he played in in 2019. Expect the Lions to test Rudolph with pressure early in Sunday’s game, which will likely lead to open receivers on quick slants. 

The Lions will also likely try to take Harris out of the game while forcing Rudolph to lead the Steelers’ offense. While this is probably not the Steelers’ preferred method of attack, Rudolph has proven that he is capable of leading Pittsburgh’s offense to victory.