The duck calls are growing louder in Pittsburgh.
Following Mason Rudolph’s four-interception performance in the Steelers‘ Week 11 loss to the Browns, Pittsburgh fans have been clamoring for the team to bench Rudolph and replace him with rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who has played well in two appearances this season. During his weekly press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that, despite his recent struggles, Rudolph will be his starting quarterback moving forward.
“We like Mason. We like what he’s done throughout this team development process,” Tomlin said of Rudolph, one of Pittsburgh’s two third-round picks in the 2018 draft. “He’s earned the position that he holds now, but it’ also something that he will continually earn through play. He understands that and we understand that. He didn’t do a good enough job taking care of the football in the last game, and he’s gotta take responsibility for that, and he understands that. That’s something that can’t be a part of his play moving forward on a consistent basis, but that’s anybody that occupies that role for us … job one is preservation of the football.”
Rudolph, to his credit, acknowledged that his performance last Thursday was well below the line of expectation during his brief media availability on Wednesday.
“I did not do a good enough job to help our team win the game.” said Rudolph, who suffered a season-low 36.3 quarterback rating during Thursday night’s 21-7 loss.
The previous day, Tomlin said it was the job of the entire offense to get things turned around. Specifically, Tomlin said that the Steelers’ offense simply needs to play better in the opening stages of games, something that has not been the case through 10 games. Tomlin also said the Steelers need to cut down on the pre-snap penalties that have led to unfavorable third down situations for Rudolph and the offense. Furthermore, Tomlin said that the Steelers need to do a better job running the football, as Pittsburgh is currently 27th in the NFL in rushing yards and 28th in yards per carry average.
A month ago, after Hodges led the Steelers to a road victory over the Chargers, Tomlin ended the outside speculation while declaring Rudolph — who missed the Chargers game with a concussion — the team’s starter moving forward. Tomlin said that, while appreciative of “Duck,” the Steelers surrounded him with a low-risk game plan that centered around running backs James Conner and Benny Snell, who touched the ball a combined 41 times for 208 yards in Pittsburgh’s 24-17 victory. The Steelers’ defense forcing two early turnovers while scoring an early touchdown themselves didn’t hurt matters, either.
While Hodges helped deliver a victory, the Steelers remained — and still remain — confident that Rudolph is the man for the job, at least for the remainder of this season. Yes, he and the Steelers have struggled this season, and if not for the quick emergence of its defense, Pittsburgh would likely be out of the playoff race entering Sunday’s game against the winless Bengals. But Rudolph has had his positive moments, engineering two lengthy scoring drives in the Steelers’ recent win over the Rams that included a clutch fourth down conversion on Pittsburgh’s final scoring drive. He’s not Ben Roethlisberger, but if his supporting cast can get — and stay — healthy, Rudolph is good enough to help the Steelers remain in postseason contention.
Rudolph’s ceiling as an NFL quarterback is still not known, and will likely remain unknown by season’s end. But pulling the plug on Rudolph now or after another another bad game will hurt Rudoph and the Steelers moving forward. It’s clear that they don’t believe that Hodges is a possible heir apparent to Big Ben somewhere down the line. It’s clear that, from the Steelers’ perspective, the remainder of this season will at least partly be about Rudolph and figuring out if he could be “the guy” when Roethlisberger does ultimately decide to hang it up for good.