First start. Check.
First win. Check.
The list will continue to grow for Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph as the 2019 season continues. With Ben Roethlisberger out for the year with an elbow injury, Rudolph will have 14 and a half games to get acclimated and show he is a quality NFL quarterback. While the game plan seemed ultra conservative in his first start, the offense was opened up a little more on Monday by using the wildcat. Add in going 24 of 28 passing with two touchdowns, Rudolph’s first win was a nice progression from the previous week.
So what is the next thing that Rudolph can do in order to make the Steelers offense better with every start? Most people would say he needs to take more shots down field. While I agree with this, I do not think it is the most important thing to happen. It may be the next thing, but there’s something else which will help the offense that many people may not have noticed.
Checking out of plays.
I’m going to site two specific examples from Monday nights game against the Bengals where Rudolph would have been wise to change the play at the line of scrimmage. It is unclear if he has the freedom to do this at this time, or if he simply lacks the confidence in changing what the coach has called. Either way, almost anything Rudolph checked to would have been better than the result of these plays (assuming there wasn’t a turnover). Both plays came on third down and went for a significant loss which resulted in a field goal on the very next snap.
So here is a breakdown of what Rudolph should have seen Monday night and why calling an audible could have been a good idea.
Ball on the Cincinnati 6 yard line
3rd down & 2 yards to go
The Steelers come out in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WR’s) with Rudolph under center for the play. The tight end is to the left of the formation as an H-back (off the line of scrimmage) with JuJu Smith-Schuster lined up on the line in tight next to him. Two wide receivers are lined out wide to the right. James Washington goes in motion from the right to lineup in the tight H-back position identical to the tight end on the opposite side. The defense has four down lineman with six players in a line 4-5 yards off the ball.
As Rudolph is under center, you can see he’s not even reading the defense with his head up. This might have been one of the problems in tipping off that it was a run play. If he had been looking and scanning the field, he would have seen the outside linebacker on the Steelers left side of the formation creeping up to the line to blitz where the Steelers were planning to run the ball.
At the snap, JuJu Smith-Schuster was unable to seal down for the block on the blitzing linebacker. James Washington pulled across the formation as a lead blocker for Jaylen Samuels to run off the left end. Unfortunately, Washington had to meet the blitzing linebacker before he could get to the outside.
The single blitzing linebacker blew up the play by causing Samuels to have to try to run to the outside. Because that was the direction Washington was blocking his man, he blocked him right into the play. The Steelers ended up losing 5 yards and kicking a field goal on the next play.
Had Rudolph been able to dissect that the Bengals were going to be blitzing a linebacker where the play was going, an audible to a play action pass could have been quite effective. Even if it wasn’t, throwing the ball away would have been better than the 5-yard loss.
Is the failure of the play on Rudolph alone? Absolutely not. JuJu Smith-Schuster missed the block. Jaylen Samuels needed to go inside behind James Washington rather than outside. But even if he did, there still wasn’t much there to get the first down. So while Rudolph was not responsible for the failed play, checking to something else in that moment would have been a wise decision.
Ball on the Cincinnati 27 yard line
3rd down & 4 yards to go
The Steelers are yet again in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WR’s), but this time they are in shotgun with James Connor to Rudolph’s right side. The tight end is lined up on the left with two more receivers out wide and a single receiver split to the right. The defense has four down lineman with two linebackers up on the line of scrimmage over the center. Each wide receiver has a defensive back paired up with him on the line of scrimmage while one lone defender is three yards off the ball over the tight end. Ten defenders are up tight with one free safety deep.
Right away Rudolph should have been able to diagnose pressure was coming up the middle. If a pass play is called, he will need to make sure he gets the ball away quickly if he doesn’t have extra protection. Instead, a run up the middle is the play called where there were more defenders than blockers.
In this situation, Rudolph should have either changed the play to an outside run, or a pass with Conner helping to pick up the additional pass rusher. All three wide receivers had single coverage. It was a great scenario to get JuJu Smith–Schuster or Deonte Johnson free on the left side or take the deep shot to James Washington on the right with the single coverage and the safety shading towards the three-receiver side.
Once again, it is unclear how much liberty Rudolph has in changing plays at the line of scrimmage. Does he have the freedom to take a deep shot on third and four much like Ben Roethlisberger would? In this scenario, the team was already in field-goal range and the play called was destined to be a disaster (which it was). This was the perfect opportunity for the deep shot to Washington if a shorter route to one of the other receivers was not available.
As the Steelers attempted to run the play up the middle, Pouncey and DeCastro double-teamed the defensive tackle to start. But due to the blitzing linebacker, DeCastro had to come off early and Pouncey was not in the correct position to make the play on the tackle who blew up the run for a 4 yard loss.
So there are two examples where it would have been in the Steelers’ best interest for Mason Rudolph to check out of the play they were running and call an audible for something else. Hopefully as he becomes more comfortable with the offense and the calls, he will be given the freedom and the tools to make these plays.