PITTSBURGH — One of the top storylines of Steelers training camp yet to be resolved as the team closes up shop at St. Vincent College and returns to Pittsburgh is the status of the backup quarterback battle.
Third-year pro Josh Dobbs and second-year passer Mason Rudolph have each started one game and each gotten a chance at performing in at least one two-minute drill while working mostly with first-team players in the first half.
Rudolph got the start on Sunday, and went 10 of 15 for 77 yards after converting 5 of 8 for 91 yards in the preseason opener. That gives him a 65.2 completion percentage and a 7.3 yards per attempt average.
Over two games, Dobbs is 11 of 19 for 180 yards — a 57.9 completion percentage and a 9.5 yards per attempt average. Dobbs also has 49 rushing yards.
Statistically, it doesn’t seem like there has been a great deal of separation between the two passers, something that head coach Mike Tomlin emphasized on Saturday night.
“Not as we stand here right now,” he said brusquely, when asked if Rudolph had made any separation.
While Tomlin’s opinion is the only one (along with his subordinate coaches) that actually matters, there are more ways to evaluate quarterback play than just passing statistics. There have been two very important characteristics that Rudolph has show when he’s been in the game that Dobbs has not so far: the ability to lead long scoring drives, and the ability to hold onto the football.
With Dobbs in the game as the starter against Tampa Bay, he led two drives with the first-team offense. The first stalled after five plays and a punt. The second went 17 plays but came away with just a field goal. Rudolph came into the game and led two scoring drives in the final 5:33 of the half, driving 64 yards on seven plays and finding James Washington for a touchdown. A three-and-out after a turnover left the Steelers in field goal range for another score.
Against Kansas City, Rudolph’s offense punted three times and fumbled once (Donte Moncrief) in the first quarter, but capitalized on a long scoring drive (14 plays, 89 yards) in the second quarter that saw Rudolph connect with Washington for 32 yards on a 3rd and 11 and with Xavier Grimble for 13 yards on another 3rd and 11.
Fittingly, Dobbs got the same two scenarios that Rudolph had the week before: one regular two-minute offense drive and a second after a turnover. Dobbs’ first drive got off to a strong start with a 40-yard completion to Washington but stalled after three straight incompletions followed a 2nd a 5.
When the Steelers got the ball back after a Tuzar Skipper fumble recovery, Dobbs threw an interception from the 6-yard line.
So through two games, when running with the first teamers, Rudolph has led his units to two touchdowns and a field goal. Dobbs has had no scoring drives and committed one turnover. It’s a small sample, one that will roughly double by the time the preseason ends, but so far, Rudolph has been the better leader of the offense, if not the better passer.
Steelers Sign another from XFL, DE/LB Dewayne Hendrix
The Steelers have signed former Pitt defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, Steelers Now has confirmed. The news of Hendrix’s signing was first reported by NFL Draft Diamonds.
Hendrix, 24, was most recently with the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL. He also spent time on the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins last season.
In five games with St. Louis, Hendrix made four tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry.
A two-year starter at Pitt after transferring from Tennessee, Hendrix finished his Panthers career with 50 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. He played in 25 games total for Pitt from 2016-18 and made 24 starts.
Hendrix missed the 2016 season with a season-ending ankle injury suffered on the first series of the game. He sat out 2015 at Pitt after playing in seven games with the Volunteers as a true freshman.
At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Hendrix played defensive end at Pitt, but could be more suited to be an outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme. He’s essentially the same height and weight as starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree.
What to Expect from a 38-Year-Old Starting Quarterback
On March 2nd, Ben Roethlisberger turned 38. When the NFL season starts in September, Ben will be 38 years old and entering his 17th year as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at this age, Ben is reaching rarefied air. Since 1969, there have been only 54 quarterbacks that played into their age 38 season. Of those 54, 46 of them started a game and just 22 finished the season with starts in more than half the games that season.
Discounting the fact that Roethlisberger is recovering from elbow surgery, what can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.
From 1969-1999 quarterbacks playing in their age 38 season on average threw for 2,665 yards with 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Not gaudy numbers, but some of that has to do with the eras in which these quarterbacks played. Even more encouraging, they had a 63% winning percentage.
From 1969-1999, five Hall of Fame quarterbacks played to age 38. Some experienced more success than others.
In 1978 Fran Tarkenton threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards but tossed up 32 interceptions and went 8-7-1 on the season. In 1983, Ken Stabler went 7-7 at age 38, but threw 18 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns and fewer than 2,000 yards. Warren Moon went 9-6 in 1994, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18). In 1999, Dan Marino went 5-6 at age 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.
On the positive side, all-time great Joe Montana had 3,283 yards through the air and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio (18-9) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and John Elway won a Super Bowl in his age 38 season. Elway may have been relying on Terrell Davis at that time, but still put up nearly 3,000 yards along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.
As sports science and training regimes have improved, it’s become more commonplace to find quarterbacks 38 and older still having success, or even dominating in the league.
In 2007, Brett Favre at 38 threw for over 4,000 yards and added 28 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions as the Packers went 13-3. Kurt Warner a year after his Super Bowl loss to the Steelers still had plenty in the tank at 38. The veteran quarterback started 15 games, going 10-5 with 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 picks. Even journeyman Josh McCown put up 18 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and 2,900 yards in his age 38 season.
Peyton Manning, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT (12-4)
Tom Brady, 4,770 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT (12-4)
Drew Brees, 4,334 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT (11-5)
However, depending on how you view Roethlisberger, a closer proxy may be former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers’ age 38 season was statistically one of his worst as the team went 5-11. Rivers threw for 4,600 yards but threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23).
What will Roethlisberger be like when he comes back? If history offers any clues, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a highly effective player on his return. Quarterbacks at his level in this era– i.e. future Hall of Famers–have historically had success at age 38 and beyond.
It’s impossible to predict when a player will “lose it”. But as long as his elbow is healed and there’s not a significant loss of arm strength, there’s no reason to think that Roethlisberger won’t be able to return to his per-injury, high-level of play.
NFL Quarterbacks at age 38, >7 starts, since 2000
All data from Pro Football Reference
What Eric Ebron Can Bring to the Steelers
When the Steelers signed free agent tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year, $12 million dollar deal, these kinds of performances probably helped convince them to make the offer.
The Steel City’s new tight end.
— NFL (@NFL) March 23, 2020
The 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end shows fantastic body control, great feet, and a penchant for making combat catches over multiple defenders. What’s not to like?
Over the past two seasons, the former 1st round pick of the Detroit Lions is 8th in receptions (97) and yards (1125) and first in touchdowns (17) amongst all tight ends.
Now the bad news. The kind of things you don’t see in highlight videos.
Ebron is last in the NFL over the last two seasons in catch percentage at just 59.9% (50 receptions minimum). That’s 10 points lower than Steelers starter Vance McDonald over the same time period. In 2019 with the Colts, Ebron took a major step back–which can be somewhat excused with Andrew Luck’s retirement–starting only two games. Ebron also had his receptions and yards halved from 2018, 66 to 31 and 750 to 375.
Obviously the Steelers are hoping to get the 2018 version of Ebron that racked up 14 touchdowns and 44 first downs and was sixth in the league in receptions and fifth in yards.
If Ebron can rediscover his red zone magic and thrive with a veteran quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger they could have a dynamic pair of tight ends between he and Vance McDonald.
A big if, but a healthy McDonald and a revitalized Ebron would give the Steelers a receiving tight end combination in the top echelon of the league at a cap hit of under $10,000,000 dollars.