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.
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.
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.
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.