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Analyzing Mason Rudolph’s inconsistent play against the Colts in Week 9

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The second part of my in-depth film review on the Steelers offense in Week 9 vs. the Colts.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

In my previous film room we looked at JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Week 9 game, and now we are following that with a review of Mason Rudolph’s day. Rudolph did not have a good day statistically and the offense struggled mightily because of it.


A good start

First play of the game, JuJu Smith-Schuster is lined up outside at the top of the screen.

It’s a nice short post by Smith-Schuster right into a small gap in the Colts cover-3-esque defense. I wanted to start with this play because Rudolph hits his WR in rhythm and it isn’t a big window. Rudolph can make these throws. That is an NFL window that isn’t too small for Rudolph, and he is capable of making the read and getting the ball out in rhythm.


Once bitten twice shy

After the interception to end the first drive Mason Rudolph didn’t just stop throwing the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster, he became hesitant and slow to get rid of the ball at all.

Diontae Johnson starts just off the screen to the left, the outside WR in the bunch.

No one is really wide open here, but Diontae Johnson has gotten outside his defender and there’s no one beyond that point. That’s the throw. Mason Rudolph needs to put it out in front of Johnson and let him try to get to it. But Mason hesitates and ends up with a much worse result. Look at the slow motion here.

He pulls the ball back in instead of throwing it out to Johnson and takes a sack fumble that luckily only ended with a safety. If he is going to tuck the ball there (like if he tucked the ball because he thought the DE had a really good chance of deflecting it) he needs to at least go forward and try to get out of the endzone. Fortunately the ST unit bailed the offense out and gave them the ball back with great field position.


Squandering great opportunities

First and 10 at the Colts 17 yard line. A chance for redemption for an offense that nearly gave the game away. On second down the Steelers reach into the bag and go back to a play from the first drive, let’s look at the first time they ran it.

It is important to note that this play is against man defense with a single high safety. James Washington runs up the sideline then blocks his defender. Diontae Johnson runs a drag away from the screen as McDonald takes his defender into the deep middle. This leaves Samuels with both guards creating a nice barrier to the defense as he races for 17 yards.

Now let’s see the second time they ran it.

This is a Cover-2 zone, and the screen is not going to work. Johnson’s drag and McDonald’s post aren’t pulling any defenders away from the screen, just blockers. It ends up with 3 defenders in the area and David DeCastro as the only blocker. A 4-yard loss pulled the Steelers out of the redzone and they ended up settling for a FG.

Watch it again, and look at Vance McDonald. He’s wide open in the soft deep middle hole of the cover-2 zone. You can see him clap his hands in frustration. It looks like Johnson is open too, but that’s at the end of the play as the shallow zone LBs see the screen, and that throw isn’t really there. But Vance is open as soon as he passes the LB, who crashes the screen before Rudolph even moves out of pocket. Lastly, look at Rudolph’s helmet, he starts the play looking right up the middle, he can see the defensive alignment, he can see it is cover-2, but he doesn’t even give McDonald a chance, he throws to the screen that the zone defense has already nullified. This is where reading the defense is so important, the screen is a man beater, McDonald is running a zone counter. As soon as Rudolph realized it was cover-2 McDonald was the throw. Mason Rudolph either didn’t realize it, or went to the check-down anyway. I can’t believe he didn’t recognize cover-2, which would mean he just threw the check-down anyway. A lot of plays were like this, Rudolph just looked scared to throw the ball downfield.


When life gives you lemons. . .

With Rudolph playing poorly and hesitantly, what kind of plays can you even run in the passing game?

McDonald is in line to the bottom of the screen, James Washington is the receiver farthest to the bottom, JuJu Smith-Schuster is in the slot.

This is a great play design, and it picks up a first down. The Steelers attack the Colts zone with a 3-level concept sending JuJu Smith-Schuster deep, James Washington between the zones and Vance McDonald short. Mason Rudolph just needs to read the 2 shallow zone defenders, if they cheat towards McDonald he has Washington behind them, if they are back far enough to stop the pass to Washington McDonald will be open. This play works because the Colts constantly ran a really deep zone on third and long. this third and 13 they run it again and McDonald is wide open underneath. But look at Rudolph on this play.

He sees that McDonald is the right throw, but it still takes him a bit to actually throw the ball. Fortunately while he’s staring down McDonald the LB actually cheats to the middle away from Rudolph’s eyes. You can see Mason Rudolph’s hands starting the motion twice before he actually throws it.


Bouncing back

With the Steelers trailing the Colts by 1 point in the 4th quarter, Mason Rudolph would throw his most productive pass of the game, and his best.

James Washington is the WR to the top of the screen.

Rudolph hesitates even here, you can see he starts to throw as soon as Washington is even with his defender, but clutches the ball once before throwing it. As a result Washington has to come back to the ball, but he is able to make the contested catch for a 40 yard gain. A pass interference call on the next play would give the Steelers a first down at the Colts 7 yard line that they would, of course, turn into a FG. If that throw is made a bit earlier and a bit deeper it is a TD. But it is important that he made this play, and hopefully it helps him strengthen his resilience.

Mason Rudolph has the potential to be a good starter, but he has to stay out of his own head and just play. He was decisive and in rhythm until he threw a bad pass that ended up being intercepted, after that Rudolph was hesitant and reluctant to take any chances. This may be fixable with experience, but it may not. QBs like Ben Roethlisberger and Devlin Hodges have a personality that allows them to throw interceptions and come right back and throw more, and then go back out again and play the exact same way the next drive. Mason Rudolph doesn’t have that kind of personality, he needs to work on putting plays behind him and trusting himself, if he can do that he can succeed, he’s shown the ability. If he can’t get out of his own head, he won’t be an NFL QB for long.