SEATTLE — The Pittsburgh Steelers have looked like a completely different team the last two games, especially on offense, where they have put up consecutive 30-point performances for the first time in four seasons.
It’s been a long time coming for a unit that caused the Steelers to fire a coordinator in-season for the first time since World War II, and almost incredibly, it took the third quarterback on the depth chart to be the one to find the success.
Mason Rudolph wasn’t necessarily the driving force in the Steelers’ 30-23 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, with the running game doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
But he was certainly more than good enough, and his statistical performance continues to impress.
On the season, Rudolph is 37 of 54 for 567 yards. He’s completed 68.5% of his passes, has not thrown an interception compared to two touchdowns, and has a passer rating of 115.3.
It’s only two games, but the last time the Steelers had a quarterback finish the season with a passer rating over 100 was Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. The last time any quarterback finished a year with a passer rating as high as Rudolph’s is right now was in 2006, when Charlie Batch finished with a 121.0 in parts of eight games.
That’s an interesting comparison point to Rudolph. The Steelers have not necessarily needed Rudolph to be a great quarterback, and the 28-year-old with 10 starts in five NFL seasons coming into this one certainly is not.
But he has been more than good enough, and significantly better than he was when he started games earlier in his career.
So what has been the difference in the offense with Rudolph at the helm this season, and how has Rudolph gotten better?
“He’s the same,” Diontae Johnson said.
That’s certainly an interesting perspective. Johnson is one of the few Steelers players that has been here nearly as long as Rudolph, and the’s been on the field through all of Rudolph’s chances to start.
“How he prepares, each and every day, practices, how he carries himself,” Johnson said. “He’s been carrying himself like he’s a starter. No matter who is back there at quarterback, we want to show the same respect to the guy. Just make plays and make them look good at all times.”
The playmakers have certainly done that. George Pickens made another circus catch against the Seahawks. Diontae Johnson ran away from defenders in space. Pickens had over 100 yards of YAC against the Bengals.
Rudolph’s statistical performance has certainly been much better than the actual grading of his quarterback play. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 65.0 in his game against the Bengals, the one that was statistically the best for a Steelers quarterback since 2018.
But Rudolph is finding ways to let his playmakers make plays. Take the deep fourth-quarter pass to Pickens. On a 3rd and 7, Rudolph stayed in the pocket despite a heavy rush. His throw was wobbly and off-target because he threw through traffic, but he put the ball in a place that Pickens could come down with it.
GP IS OUT OF THIS WORLD 🛸
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 31, 2023
The crossing route to Diontae Johnson that set up a Najee Harris touchdown was overthrown. Johnson was wide open. He was able to adjust on the ball. It wasn’t perfect quarterbacking, but it was good enough.
“Mason is a guy with good experience,” Harris said. “I’m always excited for Mason, because he had a lot of adversity he went through. Just to see him going out there and doing what he do, it’s always good … I’m always telling him, ‘You did what you needed to do.’”
“Mason has just been Mason, to be honest,” Pickens said. “He’s been doing that, like I said, when he was the backup. … We trust each other.”
For two years, the Steelers have been developing Kenny Pickett at quarterback with the hope that he develops into a franchise quarterback. That’s why they used a first-round pick on him, and they may not have given up on that dream yet.
But to this point, Pickett has not routinely enough given his playmakers the same kind of chances to make plays that Rudolph has.
It’s been two games. The chances of Rudolph continuing this already-unlikely streak are likely near zero. But the Steelers have rallied around the veteran, and that might be as important as anything to his success.
We’ve seen all around the NFL this season, backup quarterbacks come in, have some success, only to eventually turn into a pumpkin. It happened to Jake Browning during Rudolph’s ascendancy last week. Josh Dobbs, Tommy DeVito, Tyson Bagent, P.J. Walker. They’ve all eventually come back to Earth.
Rudolph will likely come back to something more closely approaching his career numbers. But his hot streak has saved the Steelers’ season, and with one more week of good play, could propel them into the postseason.