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Analysis

Josh Dobbs vs. Mason Rudolph: Who Will Be Steelers Backup QB in 2019?

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The Pittsburgh Steelers are blessed with what can be considered the holy grail of pro football players: a franchise quarterback.

Ben Roethlisberger is on a one-way ticket to slip on a gold jacket and etch his name in the deeply storied Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The upcoming 2019 season looks to be another year where Big Ben has the potential to lead the Steelers to the promise land of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy. But unlike every pro football team since the 1972 Dolphins, the Father Time is undefeated, and Roethlisberger is not likely to be come the first exception.

Some would argue he’s already on the decline, and as Ben enters his sixteenth season in the NFL, it’s not out of line to acknowledge Roethlisberger’s limits as a quarterback despite watching him throw for over 5,000 yards in 2018. His health also warrants some red flags, as the 37-year-old Roethlisberger is coming off just the fourth season in his career where he played all sixteen games.

Obviously, the Steelers feel confident in Ben’s abilities to play football, as the team inked Roethlisberger to a lucrative two-year contract extension earlier this offseason. Yet the Steelers need to be prepared to play without their star quarterback at any point in time.

That theory was proved to be pivotal last season when the Steelers found themselves in Oakland, relying on Josh Dobbs for a majority of the second half while Roethlisberger was out due to injury. Dobbs ultimately failed to secure a victory, and Pittsburgh dropped the game to a 2-10 football team despite being heavy favorites.

Dobbs’ performance (4-of-9 passing, 24 yards, one interception) stirred conversation around Pittsburgh surrounding the fate of the team had Roethlisberger’s injury been serious. He returned the following week, but if he hadn’t, who would have led Pittsburgh’s offense, Dobbs or Mason Rudolph?

The same question rings true as the team gears up for another training camp in Latrobe. Last year, Rudolph was a rookie simply trying to find his feet as a professional. Dobbs on the other hand, needed a top performance in the team’s final preseason game to beat out Landry Jones for the third and final depth position at quarterback.

As both Dobbs and Rudolph now possess another year’s worth of experience under their belts, who should the Steelers use as their second-string quarterback in 2019? We took a look at all 200-plus combined snaps for Dobbs and Rudolph in 2018.

MASON RUDOLPH

Rudolph currently enters his second season with no valuable playing time to his name after serving as Pittsburgh’s third-string quarterback in 2018. Rudolph plays more to the prototypical pocket passer when compared to Dobbs. However, he does have the athleticism to extend the play if needed. Rudolph’s accuracy on the deep ball can raise questions, as many balls appeared to sail over receivers when the Steelers wanted to push the ball downfield last preseason. However when it came to short/intermediate accuracy, Rudolph threw with exceptional accuracy on more throws than not, fitting balls into tight windows where only his receivers could grab it.

When it comes to his decision making, the little we have seen of Rudolph suggests he resides more on the risk-taking side of the spectrum, as Rudolph attempted cross-body throws and threw the ball into solid coverage multiple times during the 2018 preseason. Call it Rudolph simply finding his feet and seeing what he can get away with at the professional level. At times, he appeared hesitant to release the ball, often flinching with the ball and reacting to the defense. On short reads, Rudolph tends to stare receivers down, which caused him to throw a pick-six on the first play of week two of the preseason.

One play in particular jumped off the page when assessing Rudolph. After successfully running in a two-point conversion in the last week of the preseason, a defender launched himself into Rudolph well after the ball broke the plane of the end zone. Rudolph was leveled to the ground after an unfair shot, and after adjusting himself for a second, he proceeds to jump up and immediately get in the face of the player who did it before exchanging shoves. There’s a certain fiery mentality Rudolph possesses that naturally occurs in NFL-caliber quarterbacks. On that play, Rudolph displayed a sense of competitiveness and unwillingness to let someone walk over him or perhaps even his own teammates.

That play shouldn’t define him for better or worse, or cloud judgement when deciding who to honor with the heir to Roethlisberger’s throne. However, a quarterback represents the pulse of his team, and Rudolph showed he would show up to battle on that play.

JOSH DOBBS

On the contrary to Rudolph, Dobbs has the oh-so-valued regular season repetitions under his belt. A few weeks before he became a deer in headlights against the Raiders, Dobbs appeared in Week 9’s game in Baltimore against the Ravens after Roethlisberger needed to sit out a play per injury protocol.

With the ball placed on his own 5-yard line on 2nd and 20, Dobbs audibled out of a run play and completed a 22-yard pass for a first down. Where Rudolph may have Dobbs in juiced emotion, Dobbs overtakes Rudolph in the intelligence department (Dobbs did graduate from Tennessee with a degree in aerospace engineering).

Dobbs’ arm strength is on par, if not greater, than Rudolph’s. While Dobbs wasn’t asked to throw balls into intermediate windows like Rudolph did in 2018’s preseason games, Dobbs was able to precisely put footballs in more contested situations than Rudolph. Much like Rudolph, Dobbs threw a pick-six on his first attempt in the second week of the preseason as well. Aside from the interception, Dobbs’ decision making is also at minimum on par with Rudolph.

One of Dobbs’ best traits? His pocket presence. During preseason play, Dobbs displayed a fine ability to stand in the pocket and make throws despite knowing defenders were a mere arms-grasp away. Perhaps this comes with his maturity. Another strong asset for Josh is his athleticism. With his big frame (6-foot-3, 216 lbs), it’s easy to forget that Dobbs can take off from the pocket and beat defenders to the sideline with ease. His athleticism has also afforded him the ability to escape from sure-fire sacks and turn negative plays into positives.

Dobbs’ biggest trait in the battle for the second-string spot remains his overall experience as a quarterback. Going into his third season with the Steelers, Dobbs finds himself more prepared/battle-tested for a scenario where he will be called upon should the team need him. As much as Rudolph was loved for his competitiveness last season, Dobbs was in that very same game and needed a great performance to stay on the Steelers roster. With pressure on him, Dobbs delivered when he needed to through the air and on the ground as well.

THE VERDICT

There’s not necessarily a wrong answer, as both quarterbacks are serviceable moving forward. Do the Steelers value Dobbs’ experience, or Rudolph’s pro-style of play at quarterback? Given a short sample size, both quarterbacks are capable of making comparable throws and using their legs to extend the play. Neither quarterback stands out when it comes to basic attributes such as accuracy or arm-strength.

Dobbs entered last season as the man behind Big Ben, and is the front-runner to keep that spot going into 2019. That may not last for long, as Rudolph feels as if he’s better prepared coming into his second season. Is Dobbs’ athleticism enough to keep Rudolph from ascending him on the depth chart? Or are the strides Rudolph believes he made in the off-season big enough to warrant him ready for the next step?

There are a few dynamics that may play into making the final decision. Considering how creative offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner gets with play-calling, the Steelers might fancy a quarterback that is just as much of a threat on the ground as he is throwing the ball. Yet should second-year wide receiver James Washington take a big leap in 2019, would Pittsburgh want to pair former Oklahoma State Cowboys Washington and Rudolph for chemistry sake?

Luckily for the Steelers, plenty of time and reps remain before an official decision has to be made. Pittsburgh should hope neither of the two quarterbacks are able to see the field in 2019, as that would mean Roethlisberger remained upright and healthy. However, the race for second place behind him shouldn’t remain meaningless, as we are witnessing the second of potentially many years of a quarterback competition that will stretch until Roethlisberger calls it quits.

Grab a front row seat, as both Dobbs and Rudolph are out to prove they not only should stand behind Big Ben in 2019, but also inherit his throne when the time comes.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.

However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.

It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.

That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.

So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.

Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.

The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.

With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.

Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.

At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.

But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.

They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.

“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.

“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”

Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.

Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.

“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.

There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.

The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.

This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.

Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.

“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.

Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.

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