Forging Blades Or Melting Them Down: The 0-3 Steelers

Heintz Field Steelers Bengals on MNF

One week of football isn’t a whole lot to use when assessing a quarterback’s effectiveness in the NFL. For that matter, it sometimes can take a few seasons. Teams like the Bucs and Titans still aren’t sold on their “franchise” quarterbacks they took #1 and #2 in the draft way back in 2015. Keep that in mind when you’re reading panic articles about Rudolph in a few weeks.

Aggressive moves a good thing

First off, let’s take a look at Mason Rudolph’s situation to start the season. After Week 1, the Steelers traded away Joshua Dobbs to the Jaguars, further reinforcing the idea that Mason Rudolph should be the heir to Big Ben, whenever Ben decides to hang it up. Following the Week 2 injury to Ben, the Steelers traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick, less than 24 hours later.

The trade signals two things. For one, the Steelers had been working on this trade prior to the Roethlisberger injury, since they were shredded through the first two weeks of the season in pass coverage. Fitzpatrick was a proven corner, versatile enough to play safety, who they knew could contribute immediately and fill a need to improve the team now. By giving up a first-round pick in 2020, it also demonstrates how the Steelers are confident Rudolph can help the Steelers win now. Otherwise, why give up a possible top ten pick the following year for a guy to help now, when the team has no faith they can be competitive now?

It’s a good sign from a team faith perspective moving forward. If you’re a Steelers fan, it’s the kind of aggressive move you appreciate with a successful franchise.

A look back at last week

In order to better understand the team’s perspective finish in 2019, let’s look at how Rudolph and Fitzpatrick impacted Sunday’s game.

By the end of the first half, Minkah Fitzpatrick’s value was clear. He had a forced fumble and an interception. In 2018, the Steelers were -11 in turnover differential, so this was a great step in the right direction for 2019. Mason Rudolph did not have the same success early on in Sunday’s contest. In the first half, it was clear the Steelers were trying hard to get him settled with short, quick reads. It wasn’t effective, at all. Once the second half began, Rudolph got the green light to test the deeper routes, but it still wasn’t particularly impressive.

His 6.8 yards per attempt ranks 34th among quarterbacks this season. Imagine how bad it would’ve looked had Rudolph not connected with Diontae Johnson on a deep, broken coverage touchdown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on an amazing YAC (Yards After Catch) touchdown, the perception of Rudolph’s first start might be a lot different.

On Sunday, the Steelers were +3 in the turnover department and still lost. This isn’t a great sign, given they were -11 last season in that department, ranking them among the bottom of the league. They were very fortunate to not lose this game by a lot more. Though it was a rough look for the Steelers offense, the defense is something to be optimistic about. If they can get Rudolph into a functional role as a moderately reliable quarterback — one who can move the chains, push it downfield –, the Steelers might be able to turn the season around.

The good news going forward is that the Steelers have committed to winning now. You’ll see adjustments in the playcalling and should see deeper attempts from Rudolph going forward. The Steelers would look like complete fools if they end up with a top-eight pick in the draft, seeing as how they traded away their first-round pick. You can either expect more changes to be made with personnel or philosophies to change.

Week 4 Outlook

Per PlaySugarHouse, the Steelers are -4 favorites this week against the Bengals with an over/under of 43.5.

Now, there are some things to consider here. This isn’t a wise bet for a number of reasons. For one, we haven’t seen much of the Steelers defense with Fitzpatrick on the field. We saw his impact was clear on Sunday, but it’s only been one game and the interception he had last week was on a tipped ball, so we don’t have a lot of data to go off on this one. Second, Mason Rudolph doesn’t have a lot of tape to this point as well, either. Though the Bengals have struggled against opposing arms this season, their rush defense has been pretty awful in two of their three games as well.

It’s certainly possible Andy Dalton will attack early and often through the air, but it’s more likely we see a heavy dose of Mixon, until the game script dictates where to go from there. The Bengals have been set on establishing the run — though it’s been largely unsuccessful — and I don’t expect it to change a whole lot. But we’ve also seen the Bengals attack heavily through the air in the second half, so it’s probable Dalton will eventually put this modified secondary to the test in the second half. I think the game will be close throughout, but I think the Steelers are the more desperate team and they’ll have the advantage of being at home.

Prediction: Steelers 24 Bengals 19