Well, that was actually fun.
I don’t say that much about preseason games. Usually they are snooze-fests that feature a slew of players bumbling through their NFL moment before the waiver wire inevitably leads them to their life’s work. Thursday night against the Eagles, that wasn’t the case. It was surprisingly entertaining football for August 9th.
One of the big reasons the Steelers performed well was the play of their three backup quarterbacks. Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph all represented themselves fairly well. Rudolph, the rookie who has generated some hype as the potential heir to Big Ben, went 7-12 for 101 yards. Dobbs, the second-year gunslinger, was 9-13 for 91 yards with a touchdown and a pick. And Jones, the current No. 2 on the roster, was 4-4 for 83 yards, a touchdown and the always-absurd “perfect” QB rating of 158.3. Together, the three were 20-29 for 275 yards, 2 TDs, one interception and led the offense to 31 points. I have no idea the last time that three Steelers backup QBs put up those kind of numbers in a preseason game, but I’m willing to bet JuJu Smith-Schuster may not have been alive to see it.
Numbers aren’t everything, of course, so let’s take a closer look at how those statistics were amassed. More importantly, let’s answer this question:
What did Thursday night tell us about the Steelers' QB situation?
Jones’s numbers are the most deceiving. His first five pass attempts were: sack (-10), halfback screen (+7), sack (-9), wide receiver screen (+2), flat route to the tight end (+3). Five pass attempts — minus seven net yards. That hardly seems perfect.
The sacks were no fault of Jones’, however. David DeCastro got whooped by Fletcher Cox on the first one, and Malcolm Jenkins bowled over James Conner to get to Jones on the second. Some might wonder if Jones could have changed the protection on either play to help himself out. Negative. Cox beat DeCastro straight-up on the first. On the second, the Eagles presented eight men at the line and the Steelers, who were in 12 personnel with two tight ends and a running back, kept eight in to protect. It was mano-a-mano, and their guys beat us plain and simple.
Jones’ numbers, then, came courtesy of one play. On the Steelers third possession, facing 2nd and 9 from his own 29, an Eagles lineman penetrated the neutral zone just prior to the snap. Recognizing he had a free play, Jones threw up a jump ball to Smith-Schuster, who high-pointed it beautifully over corner Rasul Douglass at the Eagles 30 and took it to the house. End of the evening for Jones.
The 71-yard scoring play contributed overwhelmingly to Jones’s “perfect” night. He deserves credit for recognizing the free play courtesy of the off-sides and for exploiting it with the deep ball. High school quarterbacks know how to do that, though, so we shouldn’t get too carried away. The bottom line with Jones is this: on a night when Ben Roethlisberger was not going to play a snap, Jones only played three series. Why? Because the Steelers know what they have in him. What they have is the backup quarterback. Unless he completely falls apart in the next couple of weeks, you can write that down in Sharpie. Love it or loathe it, LJ is the backup to Big Ben again in 2018.
Here is where the intrigue begins. With Jones in a contract year, and with decent odds he could get a chance to start somewhere, or at least procure a richer deal than the Steelers are willing to offer in 2019, who will be the future backup, and perhaps heir apparent to Roethlisberger? Joshua Dobbs excited some people as a rookie out of Tennessee last season with his big arm and ample mobility. Could he be that guy? Concerns about his accuracy and decision-making dampened much of the enthusiasm Dobbs generated. Based on last Thursday’s performance, both the positives and the negatives remain.
First, the good. Dobbs remains a threat to make plays with his feet. On his second series, with a 1st-and-10 at the Eagles' 24, Dobbs executed the zone-read play perfectly. He held the ball out on a give to Fitz Toussaint while reading unblocked Eagles DE Joe Ostman. Once Ostman turned his shoulders to pursue Toussaint, Dobbs pulled the football back and bolted around the vacated left end for an 18-yard gain. The zone-read isn’t much more than a novelty at the NFL level, but a mobile quarterback will always stress a defense due to his ability to exploit undisciplined pass rush lanes and the inability of defenses to account for him as a runner.
Dobbs’s arm strength remains a positive as well. The play before his zone-read run, Dobbs drilled a 2nd-and-8 hitch route to James Washington for a first down. The Eagles were in a nickel package and were playing cover-2 with five defenders across the field in the underneath zones. Dobbs smoked a ball that travelled 14 yards in the air in under a second between two defenders, each of whom was less than three yards from Washington when the throw was released.
His most memorable throw of the night came with just 25 seconds left in the half. With the ball on the Eagles' 29, Dobbs hit Damoun Patterson with a frozen rope at the back of the end zone for a touchdown. The throw wasn’t perfect. As Steel34D pointed out in the game-night open thread, Dobbs had a single high safety who had vacated the middle of the field to chase a corner route. A better throw would have led Patterson towards the goal post and away from coverage. Instead, Dobbs kept the throw just inside the numbers, where it was contested by the Eagles corner and where Patterson had to make a ridiculous leaping catch to come down with the ball. Patterson bailed Dobbs out, for sure. But Dobbs should be credited for recognizing the movement of the safety and for having the sheer arm strength to gun the ball in before Patterson ran out of real estate. It was a heck of a hookup between quarterback and receiver.
The ugly Dobbs reared his head on Thursday night as well. First, his interception began with a bad scheme. The Steelers had 1st-and-10 from the right hash at the Eagles' 35 and decided to take a shot. They went play-action, with Patterson (low) and Washington (high) on a high-low corner/comeback concept against the Eagles' cover-3 scheme. To simplify, they ran a deep corner route and a deep-out, knowing the Eagles, in cover-3, would have to defend both with the same player. Problem was, they ran the concept to the far side of the field, which meant Dobbs, who released the ball at the 45, had to throw it about 50 yards in the air to get it to the shorter route. The ball hung up, Patterson did not make much of an effort to come back to get it and the Eagles’ Douglass picked it off.
Dobbs didn’t have enough mustard on this particular throw. The real problem, though, was his failure to recognize the position of the corner. Washington clearly had the corner beat on the deep cut. Had Dobbs hitched up and thrown the deeper route, it probably would have been seven. Instead, he seemed to anticipate that the corner would take away the deep route first. He guessed wrong.
This wasn’t his worst throw, however. Twice Dobbs avoided interceptions by the narrowest of margins. Once, while scrambling to his right, he tried to force a sideline throw on a comeback route that was undercut by an Eagles defender and nearly picked. Two plays later, he was late on a sideline hitch route to Washington. “Late” and “sideline route” usually bode poorly for a quarterback when placed in the same sentence. Thankfully, the throw was short. Had it been on the money, it would have hit Eagles defender De’Vante Bausby right in the chest and Bausby could have moon-walked down the sideline for a pick-six. This is the kind of mistake that can get a player cut. More on that in a minute.
Overall, Dobbs had an up-and-down evening, which is sort of what Steelers fans have come to expect. His numbers were good, he made some impressive throws, but he had an interception and he’s lucky he didn’t have two more. The coaching staff will have a lot to think about when evaluating his performance.
The third and final act was the most compelling. The rookie third-round pick. The highest selection at the QB position since Big Ben himself. What would Mason Rudolph do?
Mason Rudolph would put the ball on the money, that’s what. His first throw was a perfectly-placed crossing route to Tevin Jones who, in the tradition of prior No. 14s, promptly dropped it. His second throw was a 13-yard timing route to Patterson. Rudolph took a three-step drop, put his foot in the ground and released the ball before Patterson was out of his break. The ball couldn't have hit Patterson in a better place if Rudolph had walked it out there and handed it to him. Rudolph’s third throw was even better. Against press-man coverage, Rudolph dropped a dime thirty yards down the field on a fade route to Patterson. Unfortunately, Patterson got caught up in some hand-fighting with an Eagles corner, and the ball nearly hit him in the face mask as it crossed in front of him before he could gets his arms extended. On each of his first three throws, Rudolph was poised, decisive and accurate.
Later, Rudolph displayed the same situational awareness Jones had earlier when he caught an Eagles defender in the neutral zone at the snap and threw up a deep jump ball, which was high-pointed expertly by Washington for a big gain. He continued to hit his timing routes and put balls on the money. He threw balls away when being pressured, rather than trying to force completions. He looked like an NFL quarterback.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The word out of camp is that Rudolph has had some issues with ball security and that rang true on Thursday. He dropped a snap from center, had trouble corralling another one that messed up the timing on a quick slant and he had the ball stripped away while being sacked. Having spent all of his time at Oklahoma State in the shotgun, he is not yet completely comfortable getting out from under center. But the cure for that is simple: reps. It's a “now” problem. It should not translate to be anything more.
You can’t read too much into a performance against third-stringers, but there's no question Rudolph is more polished than both Jones and Dobbs were at this very early point in their careers. Rudolph does the fundamental things much better than the other two. His drop is sound. He has a quicker release. His accuracy is better. He doesn’t have Dobbs’s physical gifts or Landry’s... (searching for a compliment)… experience? But he's a better overall package. Best of all, he seems confident. I watched him closely in the huddle, and he was clearly The Man there. Neither Jones or Dobbs has ever struck me as a leader of men. I’m not willing to put that title on Rudolph yet. But he looks like a guy who expects to be a starting NFL quarterback someday.
SO NOW WHAT?
It’s only one preseason game, so the evaluation process continues. Likely, this is a battle for the No. 3 QB. Rudolph showed he has a future in the league. Dobbs showed he's still raw but has a tantalizing skill set. What might that mean? Our fearless editor, Jeff Hartman, opined recently that Dobbs may have created some trade value for himself with Thursday’s performance. That's an interesting possibility. Another two or three solid preseason performances might actually put him on someone’s radar. While some teams may see him as an inevitable cut and wait to scoop him up for free, others might not want to play that game of chance and could potentially offer the Steelers a late-round pick for him. That would be worth entertaining. With the likelihood of the Steelers keeping all four QBs slim-to-none, getting something in return for Dobbs, however minimal, would be advantageous.
For now, though, look for how the Steelers structure their QB rotation in next week’s preseason game against Green Bay as a barometer of their thinking. I don’t know if Big Ben will play or not, but another short stint for Jones will virtually guarantee he's the No. 2, while increased playing time for either Dobbs or Rudolph will lead to some intrigue. Are they increasing Dobbs’s reps to showcase him for someone else? Or are they taking a real close look at him in case they want to keep him? It’s not exactly the suspense of the century, but as far as keeping preseason games interesting goes, I’ll take it.