PITTSBURGH — When Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season with an elbow injury two weeks ago at Heinz Field, the play of backup quarterback Mason Rudolph in the second half of what became a loss to the Seattle Seahawks sparked some optimism that the Steelers’ season might not be lost despite the departure of the franchise quarterback.
An ugly Week 3 loss at the San Francisco 49ers eroded an awful lot of that optimism, as the Steelers started the season 0-3 for just the second time this century.
Rudolph also did not look like the same quarterback he had in relief against the Seahawks. His passes weren’t as crisp. His reads were far from perfect. As a result, the Steelers offense moved only in fits and starts against the 49ers.
In Week 4’s crucial win over division rival Cincinnati, Rudolph looked like a different player than he had the week before.
The Steelers offense still was mostly predicated on short passing, but the Steelers were able to do a better job of turning short passes into positive yardage, chiefly by relying on the abilities of backs James Conner and Jaylen Samuels out of the backfield.
They were seemingly open on every play as a check-down either over the middle or out in the flat, and though the Steelers had limited success throwing the ball down the field, they still were able to move the chains with those short plays. Of Rudolph’s 24 completions, 16 went to a running back.
“Jaylen Samuels and James Conner did a great job of running after the catch and making the guys miss in space,” Rudolph said. “That helps a lot.”
Samuels didn’t see the ball in the loss to the 49ers, but had 21 touches against the Bengals and the Wildcat formation that he starred in made a huge difference. But after the game, head coach Mike Tomlin gave Rudolph the game ball.
“Can’t say enough about Mason,” Tomlin said. “We gave him a game ball in there for his first start and win.”
“It’s great,” Rudolph said. “Unbelievable team win. A lot of leadership in the locker room and guys that know how to win and guys who have won a lot of games in their careers.”
Rudolph’s 24 of 28 night passing gave him an 85.7 completion percentage — the highest for a quarterback making his second career start or earlier since 1970. He also has at least two touchdown passes in three straight games — the longest active streak in the NFL.
As Rudolph gets more comfortable in the Steelers’ offense and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner gets more comfortable with him, there could be some more game balls in Rudolph’s future if he keeps playing the way he did Monday.
“It is a big switch when you have a guy who has been here for 16 years and likes what he likes and kind of coaches one way and then has the younger guy come in,” Rudolph said. “[Fichtner] has been unbelievably open to suggestions on my end and so we are going to continue to work and continue to gel with this younger group.”