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Steelers Analysis

Steelers Offensive Braintrust Bamboozled Bengals — Again



Steelers QB Mason Rudolph
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph talks to quarterback coach Mike Sullivan in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — Mason Rudolph got a game ball from Pittsburgh Steelers captain Cam Heyward for his performance against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday night.

Rudolph certainly deserved it, as the third-stringer delivered the best statistical performance for a Steelers quarterback since 2018 and also delivered an all-time clutch performance in the face of significant personal and professional adversity.

While Rudolph does deserve a lot of the credit for the cathartic victory, it was also the best performance we’ve seen out of the new Steelers offensive braintrust of Eddie Faulkner and Mike Sullivan, as well.

Faulkner and Sullivan ran their first game as co-coordinators or whatever you want to call this strange set-up of separate coordinator and play-caller against the Bengals four weeks previous.

In that game, the Steelers went with a fairly obvious approach. The Bengals have been one of the most susceptible defenses in the league this season to being attacked by tight ends, and the Steelers had been missing Pat Freiermuth to injury for a long stretch of the season and didn’t have a ton of tight end-heavy passing on their tape.

So the Steelers spammed Freiermuth early and often against the Bengals. He went off for nine catches for 120 yards as the Steelers beat the Bengals, 16-10.

With that performance on tape, the Steelers entered this week with the mindset that the Bengals were going to do everything that they possibly could to keep Freiermuth from gashing them again.

So they used Freiermuth as a pure decoy. The Steelers attempted 27 passes against the Bengals on Saturday. None were targeted at Freiermuth. He sat in the middle of the Cincinnati defense, taking up space and defenders and letting the receivers around him do their thing.

From the first drive, the Steelers understood that the winning matchup in this one would be George Pickens on the outside in 1 on 1 coverage thanks to the additional attention paid to Freiermuth.

“Some of the schematics today was in reaction to some of the things that Muth did last time out,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s chess not checkers in divisional play.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Rudolph. “Pat has been great for us. Coach T calls him a zone killer. He’s so savvy with his feel for zone coverage and when to hook up and break in and out. Kenny killed him with that in Cincinnati, so we and I felt like, hey, they’re going to be alert to that, no question. We wanted to have some answers other places. Yeah, frustrating at times because you want to get Pat the ball. We got the ball to other people and moved the chains.”

Did they ever. Pickens torched the Cincinnati defense all evening long, and for the second straight game, the Steelers offensive braintrust bamboozled the Bengals.

The Steelers offense hasn’t been great since Faulker and Sullivan took over. It took 34 points on Saturday to finally drag their points per game average above Canada’s. But they deserve a lot of credit for putting together a smart game plan that had the Bengals beat from the beginning.