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Mason Rudolph and the “Mental Part” of playing quarterback for the Steelers

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Analyzing the challenges and potential of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ rookie quarterback.

Oklahoma v Oklahoma State Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

What is the most difficult position to play in team sports?

Recently, my co-workers and I passed a lunch break arguing this question. It was inspired by our school’s baseball coach who—in lauding his catcher—proclaimed this position to be the most difficult in all of team sports. Bedlam ensued and we soon forced him to take back the remark. We respected catchers, no doubt about it. But the hardest in all of team sports? That dog wouldn’t hunt.

After some back and forth (and the occasional personal insult), we found ourselves with two legitimate contenders to this particular throne: NHL goalie and NFL quarterback.

The pro-goalie crowd had some solid talking points. The goalie must combine lightning reflexes with acrobatic agility, world-class skating ability with the steely courage that allows him to use his body as a shield against frozen rubber discs being rocketed at him at 100 mph while large men assault each other with sticks just inches from his face. An NHL goalie must stop more than 90% of the shots fired at him under these circumstances or he’ll be shipped off to Moose Jaw. Good luck with that.

The NFL-quarterback crowd counter-punched. Granted, changes to the league’s rules no longer allow defenders to treat quarterbacks as piñatas, but the position remains absurdly difficult. Quarterbacks must possess quick reflexes, superhero-like instincts and rocket arms. They must understand playbooks as thick as dictionaries. They must display an “it” quality that allows them to command other alpha-males with the confidence of Douglas MacArthur. They must de-code intricate defensive schemes and communicate that information to their teammates. They must corral a snap from center (harder than it looks), drop back and deliver a precise throw through a miniscule window to a receiver moving at high speed while some of the biggest, fastest, strongest human beings on the planet attempt to legally assault them. Failure to do this consistently will result in great bodily harm and/or being subject to ridicule by the fan base (not at BTSC, of course).

Thus, the argument was settled. With all due respect to my hockey-loving co-workers, there really was no argument. NFL quarterback is the hardest position to play in team sports.

What sets the NFL quarterback apart from professional hockey goalies and every other position isn’t just the physical challenge of performing difficult tasks in an environment of chaotic violence. It is the mental challenge of understanding everything that is unfolding within that chaos. Further, not simply understanding the chaos but anticipating it, welcoming it and knowing how to exploit it. It’s the ability to recognize the strong safety tipping his hand just a fraction of a second too early in a pre-snap rotation to tip the coverage disguise, and knowing, in the split-second between when that error is made and when the ball is snapped, exactly how to make him pay for it. It’s that — the ability to be a chess master when everyone else on the field is playing checkers.

Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-round draft pick Mason Rudolph is in the infant stage of his audition for this role. Early reports from mini-camp on Rudolph were encouraging. Rookie receiver Marcus Tucker praised the strength of Rudolph’s arm, while Head Coach Mike Tomlin said he “made some plays.” Scouting reports have described Rudolph as “cerebral,” as someone who’s tough under pressure and sees the field well. None of this is earth-shattering, but all are encouraging signs. A long road awaits Rudolph in his transition from college stud to (hopefully) NFL franchise QB. More than likely, that transition will hinge on his ability to master the mental part of playing the position.

The mental part of playing the position. We hear about this all of the time. What exactly does it mean, though? Here are three key challenges Rudolph will face while attempting to become a quarterback chess master.

1. THE “DQ” FACTOR

Former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer (insert sarcastic remark here) now leads the coaching staff of the Elite 11, which is the best high school quarterback competition in the country. It’s a nationwide contest that culminates with 11 regional winners challenging each other in a series of drills, chalkboard wars and passing scrimmages at the Nike campus in Oregon. Elite 11 finalists have included Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, Jameis Winston, Tim Tebow, Matt Leinart and Chase Daniel. In all, 57 Elite 11 participants have reached the NFL, while another 50+ have gone on to become college Division-I starters. The contest isn’t like so many others that pry the money out of the wallets of star-struck high school kids by promising them college scholarships and NFL contracts. The Elite 11 is for real.

Recently, I saw Dilfer interviewed about the qualities he and his staff look for in judging these “best of the best” high school quarterbacks. Dilfer talked a little bit about size, mechanics and arm strength, but the thing he emphasized the most was something he called “DQ.”

“Dude Qualities.”

According to Dilfer, “DQ” is not a decipherable or quantitative measure. Instead, it’s an attitude that the best quarterbacks possess. It’s the mentality that allows them to walk into a room of other elite players and believe they are the best one there. Not to pretend they are the best, but to truly believe it. The kids who make the Elite 11 finals, Dilfer said, are almost always high DQ kids. These are the ones who are simply unafraid. Unafraid of the competition, unafraid to make mistakes, unafraid to fail. They relish challenges and are unfazed by adversity. They approach every situation as though they will succeed, and any setback is simply a temporary inconvenience.

On the other hand, Dilfer says, the low-DQ kids become timid amongst the elite, or withdraw from challenges, or simply don’t allow themselves to stand out in any way. These kids might have all of the talent and ability in the world but, without the DQ, they’re unable to command an elite group in the way required of a quarterback.

I’ll admit I find the phrase “DQ” a little goofy. It sounds like something the bros from “Jersey Shore” devised. Substitutes might include confidence, swag, self-assuredness. Whatever we call it, the importance of these qualities in an NFL quarterback cannot be underestimated.

Dilfer admits he was never a high DQ guy. It’s one of his great regrets, and he believes his self-doubt held him back from becoming the player he could have been. Ben Roethlisberger has no such problem. If there’s any QB who oozes DQ, it’s Big Ben. His abundance of this “it” factor allowed him, at a very young age, to take command of an experienced Steelers team and become its unquestioned offensive leader. Think about that task: as a 22 year-old rookie, Roethlisberger, with little preparation, stepped in to a Steelers lineup after Tommy Maddox went down in the second game of the season and ripped off 15 straight wins. Of course, Big Ben had a lot of help in the form of a great running game and a stellar defense. Still, his self-confidence was integral to his ability to lead that Steelers team regardless of what he was asked to do on the field. A rookie QB with lesser “DQ” would not have been able to command that veteran group.

Ben’s DQ has also gotten him into trouble over the years. Sometimes it’s morphed into something reckless, bordering on hubris. A prime example of this is the interception he threw to end the 2017 Patriots game. Roethlisberger’s forced throw into tight coverage to Eli Rogers after the infamous Jesse James play wasn’t stupid as much as it was arrogant. The safe play there was to throw the ball away, kick the field goal and go to overtime. The “DQ” play was to try to squeeze in the throw. Ben choosing the latter of the two shouldn’t surprise us. It fits who he is.

More often, though, Ben’s DQ has served him well, allowing him to rebound from interceptions to throw balls into tight windows from which less-confident quarterbacks would have shied away and to rise to the challenges presented by his opponents. The 2009 Green Bay game comes to mind, when Roethlisberger culminated an epic duel with Aaron Rodgers by drilling a walk-off TD throw to Mike Wallace, capping a 500+ yard performance in a 37-36 win. Ben’s belief in Ben is as integral to his success as his physical gifts.

The question looking ahead, then, is what sort of “DQ” will Mason Rudolph possess? It’s one thing to be The Man on a college campus among 18-22 year olds. It’s quite another to command grown men with large expectations and even bigger egos. Is Rudolph the high-DQ quarterback unfazed by the daunting task of following a legend? Can he, as a rookie, earn the respect of NFL veterans accustomed to Roethlisberger’s imposing presence? Or is Rudolph the guy who shies away and seems apologetic for being there, who knows it’s Ben’s huddle and Ben’s team? Will he be content to lay low and bide his time? If Rudolph is a high-DQ guy, he will respect Roethlisberger while competing to unseat him. He will learn from Ben while refusing to be intimidated by him. He will accept his position for the time being but will use every rep he gets to establish himself as the future of the franchise. The mental makeup Rudolph brings to the Steelers before he ever opens a playbook or takes a legitimate rep will go a long way towards defining his legacy as an NFL quarterback. It might have something to say about Roethlisberger’s as well.

2. LEARNING TO CALL PROTECTIONS

“52’s the Mike! 52’s the Mike!”

We’ve all watched an NFL broadcast and heard the quarterback bark out something like this. What’s he talking about? What’s it mean? And what does it indicate about playing NFL quarterback? Let’s address these one by one.

To begin, “52 is the Mike!” is the quarterback letting the offensive line know that #52 on the defense should be identified as the Mike linebacker. This is important because many teams use the Mike to determine their pass protection. By identifying the Mike, linemen can begin their “count,” or the process of determining who they’re assigned to block.

Consider the following image:

6-person “Man” protection scheme

In this photo taken from the Philadelphia/Atlanta playoff game in January, Eagles QB Nick Foles will identify the Mike backer (circled). Linemen will then treat the Mike as the ‘0’ man in the protection, which means, assuming this is a six-man pass pro, running back Jay Ajayi is responsible for blocking him if he comes on a blitz. Ajayi probably has a checkdown route here. If the Mike comes, Ajayi blocks him. If the Mike drops into coverage, Ajayi will likely run an OTB route (over-the-ball) where he hooks up in the area the Mike has vacated and becomes the final option in the QB’s route progression.

Once the linemen know who the back is going to block, they can find their assignments. In a traditional 6-man protection scheme, the OL will fan away from the Mike — which means if the Mike is to their right they will block the first defensive player to their left, and vice versa. Linemen must know how they are handling twists and stunts from the DL, and the left guard, who would block the weak side backer here, must know if he has a “dual read,” meaning the responsibility of reading two different second level players (likely the weak side backer and an unpictured blitzer to Foles’s left side). Otherwise, pass protection assignments against a defensive structure like this one are fairly easy to diagnose once the QB has identified the Mike.

Things can get much more complicated, however.

In the next photo, the Eagles are in a bunch formation to their right and the Falcons have eight potential pass rushers in the box. If Foles identifies the Mike traditionally, as shown below, and the Eagles block it as a man protection, there is no one to handle defenders 7 and 8 should they come on a stunt. Also, given the alignment of defenders 7 and 8, potential stunts might involve one or both of them coming inside to the A or B gaps, off the edge or looping and slanting. Any of these might create problems for a man-based protection. Consider:

A stunt like this would wreck a man-based protection scheme. The QB must change protection against this look.

Foles must recognize the potential of multiple blitzers here and the problems they could present. Who is coming? Who is dropping into coverage? Without these answers, or without great communication among the OL and the RB, this is a dangerous situation for the offense. Therefore, he may want to change to a more gap-sound slide protection whereby the OL blocks an area instead of a man and the RB, rather than block the Mike, seals the edge away from the slide. This eliminates the RB as a checkdown option, so the QB will also have to adjust the routes of the receivers to include a “hot” check where someone in the bunch runs a quick route into the area voided by the blitzer(s). The changes would look something like this:

Changing to a slide protection allows for six gaps to be blocked with a “hot” route to exploit the unblocked seventh rusher (#22).

So, to get this play right, the QB must receive the play call in his headset, communicate it to the team, line up, identify the secondary coverage, identify the front, recognize that the protection call isn’t ideal for the situation, know the right protection change and communicate that to the OL, make the necessary route adjustment and communicate that to the receivers, then properly execute the play. All while the play clock is ticking down and 75,000 fans are roaring at full throat (on the road, anyway). Piece of cake, right?

Here’s the really tricky part for a young QB like Rudolph: in college, protection calls and changes are overwhelming handled by the coaching staff or by the OL. Most college offensive coordinators don’t want to overload their QB’s with information. They believe that 19 and 20 year-old kids have enough on their plates just understanding playbooks and diagnosing coverages. Plus, many coaches simply don’t trust the decision-making of college kids. I was at a clinic once listening to G.A. Mangus, who was then the OC for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. Mangus was asked whether he let his QB audible out of plays or change pass protections. “My QB eats Fruity Pebbles for dinner and his Mom still does his laundry,” Mangus said. “There ain’t no way I’m letting him get near audibles and protections.”

In the pros, however, QBs call protections because they are the ones expected to best understand and recognize defensive structures. Pro QBs have to know everything happening on the field at any given time. They must recognize fronts, coverages, where blitzes might come from and how to get into the best offensive plays to counter those schemes. Pro QBs get paid millions of dollars to understand these things. They might still eat Fruity Pebbles for dinner but the degree to which they are expected to comprehend and command both sides of the ball increases by leaps and bounds. Making protection calls is one of the most important of these new responsibilities. Because so many young QBs have never done it before, the learning curve can be steep.

3. “GETTING ON THE SAME PAGE” AS HIS RECEIVERS

Announcers often talk about how a quarterback and a receiver are not “on the same page.” Typically, there is little explanation as to just what this means. Let’s examine.

The most obvious way a QB and a receiver need to be “on the same page” is by understanding coverages. Teams tend to structure their passing concepts with built-in adjustments to the coverage they’re getting. If a defense presents cover-2 (two deep defenders), the outside receiver might run a vertical route to force one of the deep defenders to get all the way to the sideline to cover him. If it’s cover-3, however (three deep defenders), that vertical will not work. There are too many deep defenders to throw down the sideline here. Therefore, the outside receiver will convert his vertical route to an out or a comeback at 12-15 yards (see below). If the quarterback or the receiver fail to properly diagnose the coverage and/or don’t know the proper adjustment, it can result in a sack, an interception, or one of those really ugly throws to nowhere that leaves the fans thinking, Who the hell was that to?

At left, a cover-2 beater; at right, the adjustment vs. cover-3. WRs and QBs must both see the coverage and know the adjustment to be “on the same page.”

Pro defenses do a great job of disguising coverages, so it’s rarely as simple as depicted above. Experienced quarterbacks like Roethlisberger often let the play clock tick down to the last second to force a defense to show its hand, be it a blitz, line stunt or coverage rotation, before the ball is snapped. That way he (and the WR) can get the information they need to make the proper adjustments. The more a QB and WR work together, the better they tend to be at both understanding these disguises, recognizing defensive structures and knowing the checks that are expected against them.

Knowing the route checks vs. cover-2 or cover-3 is high school stuff, however. In the pros, the details of “being on the same page” become extremely specific.

Take the following, for example. What coverage is this?

Cover-0? Cover-4? A cover-3 rotation? How do you tell?

It looks like cover-0 (man-to-man with no deep help). The corners appear to be locked on the outside receivers and there are defenders aligned over top of the two other receivers to the trips side at the top of the screen. There are no true deep safeties, although, with the safeties lined up at 8 yards depth, this could actually be cover-4 zone. Or the defense could be showing 0 or 4 and rotating into another coverage, like cover-3. How can you tell? This is where “being on the same page” is essential.

One thing an experienced QB can do here is signal for “Return” (sometimes called Bounce or Yo-Yo) motion. That’s where an off-the-ball receiver, like one of the inside receivers to the top of the image, would start to motion across the formation and then return to his original alignment once he reached the guard or center. This motion seems kind of pointless. Why have a guy come in a few steps and then go back to where he was? The purpose is to see how the defense reacts to that movement. If a single defender follows the motion, it is likely man coverage. If the motion elicits no reaction, or a rotation of multiple defenders, it is likely zone. A quarterback and his receivers are “on the same page” if they all recognize the reaction of the defense to the Return motion and if they all understand how the play-call is effected by the knowledge they have just received. The Return motion might reveal that it is man coverage, for example, and the red zone man-beater in the game plan might be something like the routes shown below:

Man-beater check: Slant-Flat with a clear-out to the top, Fade/Swing concept to the bottom. Everyone must know the check!

If the receiver to the top of the screen thinks this is zone, or if he forgets his man check and runs the wrong route, the QB might throw a slant here into the chest of the defensive back. Everyone watching from their living room then screams and yells at their TV - What the hell is he doing! - when in fact he’s doing the right thing. Here’s the kicker, though: whether he’s doing the right thing or not, it’s still the quarterback’s fault. The quarterback has to ensure his receivers understand all of the checks so mistakes like these don’t happen. They must watch film together, study the playbook together, rep the heck out of these things in practice so mistakes like this don’t happen. At the end of the day, the QB gets the credit when it goes right and the blame when it goes wrong. A quarterback who relies on a receiver to do something needs to know that receiver is going to do it. It’s not good enough to hope he does it, or to blame him if he does it wrong. You hear QB’s talk all of the time about how much “trust” they have in certain guys. This is what they’re talking about. That trust isn’t just a matter of knowing a certain receiver will catch the football. It’s knowing that the two see the same things, think the same things and will react the same way.

This is just one example of the ways in which QBs and WRs must be “on the same page.” It certainly benefits Mason Rudolph in this regard to have his college teammate James Washington in Pittsburgh. Rudolph and Washington have had plenty of reps together and should know what the other is thinking in most situations by now. They must adapt that knowledge to the playbook here, of course. Still, the familiarity is important. The speed with which Rudolph can build that type of relationship with the rest of his offense will be essential to his development.

WHAT, THEN, SHOULD WE EXPECT FROM MASON RUDOLPH?

I didn’t see many Oklahoma State games during the past few years and I haven’t watched a ton of Rudolph’s film. Like many of you, I’ve seen some YouTube clips and some highlight reels but everyone looks good in those. What, then, of the elements we’ve addressed here?

At 6’5” and 235 pounds, Rudolph is a good-looking kid who passed for more than 10,000 yards in high school, was a 4-star recruit, went 30-8 as a college starter, threw for more than 13,000 yards in college, won a couple of bowl games and was selected as the nation’s Most Outstanding Senior Quarterback. Point being, with a resume like that, his DQ should be pretty high. The one thing I’ve noticed in reading about him as a Steeler so far is he doesn’t seem intimidated in the least by all of the noise surrounding him as Roethlisberger’s “heir apparent.” Few believed Landry Jones and Josh Dobbs were selected as anything other than backups to Big Ben. But the fact that Roethlisberger is clearly in his final few years, coupled with the Steelers trading up to take Rudolph in Round 3 (and seeming genuinely thrilled to get him) has fueled an awful lot of speculation that he might truly be The Guy. I don’t blame Big Ben for some of the remarks he made after the draft about wanting to play 3-5 more years. My interpretation of that was him saying I’ll go when I’m ready; this kid isn’t pushing me out the door. I loved Rudolph’s response in return. “Ben doesn’t owe me anything,” Rudolph said. Translation: I’ll earn whatever I get. That smacked of some DQ.

As previously mentioned, scouting reports on Rudolph seem to indicate he’s both smart and mentally tough. This should allow him to get up to speed pretty quickly on protections and communication with his receivers. The mental toughness may also allow him to be demanding of his teammates, which is something a QB must know how to do constructively. In short, the kid seems to be both self-assured and intellectually capable. He seems well-positioned to handle the mental part of being an NFL quarterback.

As for his physical abilities, that’s a conversation for another time. What about his footwork? His arm strength? His mechanics? If the mental aspect was all it took, Doug Pederson would have been a brilliant NFL QB (instead, he’s a brilliant NFL coach). Fortunately, Rudolph doesn’t need to be The Guy immediately—he has time to develop. It’s hard to be the one who follows the legend. If Rudolph can put the mental and physical parts of playing the hardest position in teams sports together, maybe he’ll be the next Rodgers-following-Favre. If not, and to the great dismay of Steelers fans, it’ll probably be more like Stoudt following-Bradshaw.