Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 16, 2019
Let’s dive right on in. Stock report!
Quarterbacks: Tepid optimism!
If you were holding on to even the smallest, most infinitesimal shred of hope that the Steelers could rebound from a bad 0-2 start, then it’s difficult to envision a bleaker headline than the one at the onset of this blog. Ben Roethlisberger suffering a season-ending injury has represented the worst-case scenario for the past 15 years; now that it’s happened, the Steelers are a listless ghost ship and the onus is now on second-year backup Mason Rudolph to captain the vessel clear of a looming icefield. A surface-level analysis of what the Steelers currently are—that is, a deeply-flawed 0-2 outfit with no semblance of a run game, an inconsistent passing attack, and legitimately one of the most underachieving defenses in NFL history (more on this in a bit)—reveals that they’re doomed.
But perhaps not. It is deeply ironic that just last season Roethlisberger publicly tsk-tsked management for drafting Rudolph, indicating that the Steelers would’ve been better suited drafting players who can “help them win now.” Putting aside that Roethlisberger’s logic here kinda implies that backups and depth players cannot immediately contribute to winning teams, Roethlisberger fails to consider that his unplanned departure—say, the ligaments holding his upper and lower arm together spontaneously detonating during an otherwise routine throw—would create an urgent need for players who can help the Steelers win right now.
Mason Rudolph has the trappings of a win-now player. For one thing, he’s an ostensible first-round talent—the Steelers apparently graded him as a first-rounder, though it’s reasonable to suggest that the team leaked an inflated pre-draft score to make it appear that they finessed their way into the steal of the draft and potential heir to Ben Roethlisberger—who spent the preseason doing a very convincing impersonation of a professional quarterback. He proved capable of making virtually any throw, ranging from last-ditch check-downs to perfectly-arched downfield rainbows, looked comfortable in the pocket, and continued to build upon his extrasensory rapport with James Washington. There’s also the matter of intangibles. Rudolph has zero starts under his belt, but his familiarity with the Steelers playbook, cultivated over the course a de facto redshirt campaign in 2018, makes him a more attractive short-term fix than any quarterback the Steelers could pull off the street.
There are downsides, of course. Secondary quarterbacks pulled off the bench cold frequently over-perform in their first game action (take, for instance, Gardner Minshew’s 22/25 performance against the Chiefs in relief of Nick Foles back in Week 1). Rudolph played a solid game against Seattle, but that’s largely attributable to the fact that the Seahawks specifically game-planned for Ben Roethlisberger, who, aside from his physical dimensions, differs from Rudolph in myriad ways. (For instance, Ben relies heavily on improvisation, whereas Rudolph comes from a more structured college system that incorporated Air Raid elements to stretch opposing defenses). As Rudolph puts out more tape, opposing defenses will take note of his idiosyncrasies and revise their game-plans accordingly.
Speaking of game-plans, Mike Tomlin et al. ought to be prepared to amend their own. Roethlisberger had free rein to adjust the playcall at the line or scrimmage and he often did. In many ways, he was Pittsburgh’s offense. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner merely existed to provide gentle suggestions. No longer. Fichtner is the captain now and Rudolph is his conduit.
So, how do you devise an offensive system that keeps defenses honest and provides young, green quarterbacks with the requisite window to allow plays to develop? Play-action!
Remember a few years ago when the Jaguars effortlessly hung 45 points on the Steelers in a playoff game? Did you ever question how a thoroughly worthless quarterback like Blake Bortles was able to engineer scoring drive after scoring drive? It was because the Jaguars utilized play-action on solidly 75 percent of their passing plays. Now, the caveat here is that, for play-action to work, opposing defenses must realistically believe that the offense is capable of running the ball effectively, which is something the Steelers have demonstrated thus far this season that they cannot do. This is honestly kinda inexplicable given the presence of three Pro Bowl players along the offensive line and a running back in James Conner who averages 4.5 yards per rushing attempt in his career, so it stands to reason that, eventually, the Steelers will find success running the football. I would expect a more even run/pass split in the weeks ahead, with heavy doses of play-action mixed in.
Here’s the payoff: If the Steelers ultimately can run the ball to great effect and rely on Rudolph to be a game manager who takes a handful of shots downfield over the course of the game, then the offense is more often than not going to leave the Steelers in position to win games. The season isn’t lost just yet.
Balls: Stock up
Let’s begin this section by examining some longer-term implications. Roethlisberger fully intends to return to the Steelers in 2020, but his comeback will not be dictated by his willpower or perseverance or desire to compete or whatever but how his corporeal form responds to major surgery.
With that said, let’s assume that, for the sake of argument, that Ben does miraculously return to his pre-injury form. Let’s also assume that, in Ben’s stead, it became straightforwardly apparent that Mason Rudolph is in fact the quarterback of the future. What an interesting power dynamic that would create! It would be insane for the Steelers to relegate Rudolph to backup status and risk curbing his professional development, but at the same time it’s hard to envision a healthy (and paid) Ben Roethlisberger holding a clipboard. A big season from Rudolph could potentially precipitate Roethisberger’s exodus, perhaps even more so that complications from his elbow injury.
Now let’s lean in the other direction on this one. Let’s pretend that Rudolph plays so poorly this season that it becomes strikingly evident that he cannot be a serviceable quarterback in this league (think Landry Jones). Let’s also pretend that Roethlisberger never returns to form. They could very legitimately be the worst team in the NFL in 2020, which would allow them to draft football Jesus Trevor Lawrence in the 2021 Draft. Not too shabby.
This is all a very dumb and roundabout way of saying that I’m a big fan of the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade.
I’ve written on this website before that I think NFL teams—and, by extension, fans of those teams—tend to overvalue draft capital, which grants teams the opportunity to sift through vast swathes of nebulous commodities in search a franchise-altering talent; or at the very least, a slightly-above replacement-level player. Pragmatically, a draft pick is a scratch-off ticket. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a good defensive back, and to me trading a draft pick that may or may not be in the top 10 and may or may not yield a promising talent in exchange for a 22-year-old, affordable, multifunctional, proven commodity who is under team control for four more years is an absolute no-brainer.
With Fitzpatrick in the fold, the Steelers defense now includes a stunning nine former first-round picks aged 30 or younger.
Defense: Stock down
You’d think by now the investment in the defense would’ve bore fruit, but alas, it has not. We’ve yet to discuss many specifics from the loss to Seattle, but Russell Wilson almost singlehandedly thwarted Pittsburgh’s defensive schematics. He was sacked thrice in the first half but ultimately settled down and eviscerated the secondary with an unceasing onslaught of on-the-money passes to open receivers, and his 15-yard scamper on 3rd and 16 with under 3 minutes remaining set the Seahawks up for a manageable 4th and 1 to seal the game. Wilson is a veritable wizard and someone for whom defensive coordinators ought spend nights preparing. Keith Butler must’ve spent his evenings watching reruns of The Office instead.
A defense replete with first-rounders—ostensible blue-chippers—should be better. Of course, not every defender the Steelers wagered a high pick on has worked out [narrows eyes at Artie Burns and Bud Dupree], but the team has enough proven talent to avoid rendering the defense a weekly liability, and yet they consistently are. Pittsburgh’s defensive renaissance has been four years in the making, and they’re no closer to assembling a formidable defense now than they were before Antonio Brown lost his mind.
Tomlin and Butler can be forgiven to some extent for their stunning inability to develop talent, but what can’t be excused are their woeful defensive schemes.
The 49ers are next, and they foisted upon the Bengals a thorough beatdown despite playing their third- and fourth-string running backs and having literally zero wide receivers of note (though George Kittle is a monster and will eat Steelers linebackers and safeties alive). To this point, their defense has amassed 10 sacks, which is the joint result of an adept secondary and a deep, talented defensive line. While the Niners are devoid of any household superstars, they are incredibly well-balanced on both sides of the ball. Thankfully, the Steelers always play well in the Pacific Time Zone!
Bonus segment: Food takes
KFC’s esteemed culinary scientists did the impossible and stuck a deep-fried chicken breast betwixt a pair of donuts; now they wanna see if America is ready to luxuriate in their innovation. Pittsburgh was lucky(?) enough to be one of the markets in which the fried chicken donut sandwich would be subject to a trial run, so, as a civic duty to my nation, after work Tuesday I headed out to my nearest KFC in search of this novel artifact.
It was...not gross? The donuts are made-to-order, which means that the glaze hasn’t had the opportunity to set and surface temperature of the sandwich out-of-box is approximately 900 degrees Celsius. The sandwich is also devoid of toppings, something it desperately needed to cut through all the starch and grease. I ate about half of it while sitting in my car (the least dignified way imaginable to eat this sandwich) before my body started sending SOS signals to my brain and about 30 minutes later I genuinely thought I was gonna die. The grocery clerk asked why I was so sweaty. I lied and told her that I had fever. I didn’t puke, though. Six out of 10 stars, would recommend.