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The Steelers’ failure to support Mason Rudolph leads to loss in San Francisco

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The loss falls on Mason Rudolph’s shoulders, but the Steelers plan didn’t help matters much.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The kid wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. He missed some receivers. He was tentative in the pocket at times. He threw a brutal interception. But, with a quiet confidence that belied his inexperience, he twice brought the Steelers back from second half deficits with long touchdown throws.

Mason Rudolph didn’t make people forget about Ben Roethlisberger against the 49ers on Sunday. But he did enough for them to win.

Unfortunately, his teammates didn’t get the memo.

Rudolph’s statistics won’t kick-start a Hall of Fame campaign. He went 14-27 for 174 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. However, his 76 yard throw to Juju Smith-Schuster in the 3rd quarter gave the Steelers a 13-10 lead after they’d fallen behind 10-6. Then, after San Francisco went back on top with a long touchdown drive, Rudolph threw two perfectly-placed deep balls — the first which drew a pass interference penalty on Niners cornerback Jason Verrett and the second a 39 yard scoring strike on a double move to rookie Diontae Johnson that victimized Verrett again — and the Steelers were back on top.

It should have been enough. It wasn’t.

There are a few basic truisms when you’re starting a young quarterback. You have to protect him, be able to run the football, play great defense and not hurt yourself with penalties and turnovers. The Steelers did none of these things with much consistency on Sunday. The offensive line could neither run-block effectively nor keep the pass rush away from Rudolph. The receiving corps could not separate from man coverage, allowing San Francisco to rush with abandon. The defense could not stop the run, yielding 168 yards on the ground to a team missing its best offensive lineman. Costly penalties preceded Rudolph’s interception and the 49ers winning score. The latter penalty came shortly after the costliest mistake of all - James Conner’s late fumble that gave the Niners the ball at the Steelers 24 with five minutes to play.

The Steelers squandered five San Francisco turnovers and a gutsy second half performance from their young QB by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It was the type of performance that typifies losing football -- getting beat in the trenches, failing to capitalize on opportunities and hurting yourself with penalties and turnovers. At 0-3, the Steelers, to this point in the season, are indeed a losing football team.

The performance of their young QB should offer some hope, however. With Rudolph largely at the helm, the Steelers have been close the past two weeks, losing by a combined six points. Close doesn’t get you much in pro sports. But it does show that Rudolph can keep the Steelers in football games against good opponents. If they can figure out how to play more competently around him, there are victories on the horizon.

Let’s look at the performance of the offense against San Francisco and how the Steelers could have better supported their young quarterback in his debut.


The Consequences of Being Overly-Conservative

Anticipating that Rudolph might be nervous, and that San Francisco might pin their ears back and come after the young QB like gang-busters early on, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner tried to protect him by calling an array of screen passes and short throws throughout the first half. How short were these throws? On the Steelers opening drive, Rudolph completed three consecutive passes for a total of five yards. This was the longest throw of the three:

Conservative might be an understatement for Fichtner’s opening script. The Niners played cover-1 and cover-2 and never rushed more than five. They didn’t try to disguise anything or do anything exotic. They simply rushed the passer aggressively, sat on the underneath routes in anticipation of quick throws and tackled soundly in the open field. Fichtner did what he felt was necessary to get Rudolph easy completions and make him feel comfortable. The Niners, to their credit, were ready for it.

The Steelers continued with this approach for the first two quarters. At halftime, Rudolph had completed eight throws for 50 yards with the longest a gain of twelve. Fichtner may have been hesitant to push the ball downfield more because every time Rudolph dropped to pass it felt like he had rushers around his feet. But the steady diet of short throws allowed San Francisco’s defensive backs to play with tight cushions and disrupt the routes of Pittsburgh’s receivers, making it hard for them to get separation. This seemed like a chicken-or-the-egg type problem: did the receivers fail to get open because of the Niners pass rush or was the pass rush effective because the receivers couldn’t get open?

Regardless of the answer, the Steelers converted four first half turnovers by the 49ers into just six points. The overly-conservative passing attack coupled with an ineffective run game caused them to leave some valuable meat on the bone.


Speaking of the Run Game...

San Francisco’s defensive front simply dominated the Steelers offensive line against both the run and the pass. The Steelers rushed 22 times for 79 yards but frankly it felt like less. 15 of those yards came as Rudolph ran for his life while another 15 came on reverses to the wide receivers. That leaves 49 yards for the running backs. Jaylen Samuels, who seems to make positive things happen whenever he touches the football, did not touch it once all game. There were no two-back sets and few attempts to add a lead blocker of any sort to help in the run game. Granted, fullback Rosie Nix was out and tight end Vance McDonald left early with an injury, limiting Fichtner’s ability to use true 12 or 21 personnel. Still, the disappearance of Samuels from the game plan was puzzling to me.

As for the offensive line, the front five was just not able to get much of a push against their San Francisco counterparts. James Conner and Benny Snell, Jr. combined for 16 carries. Nine of those went for three yards or less and the longest run of the day went for ten.

The play on which Conner fumbled typified the Steelers afternoon in the run game. The Steelers ran a pin-and-pull sweep whereby linemen on the play-side block down on defenders to their inside gap (“pin”) while linemen who have no backside gap defender (in this case, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey) pull and clear the edge. Watch:

There were several problems with this concept. First, the Steelers asked rookie tight end Zach Gentry (81) and receiver James Washington to provide the down blocks that would compress the edge for Conner. That’s like asking my six year-old to bench press 300 pounds. I understand that McDonald was out and the Steelers were limited at the tight end position. But Gentry is clearly not ready for prime time as a blocker. Asking him to seal the edge here put him in a position to fail (which he did, by allowing safety Jaquiski Tartt to rip across his face into the hole). Washington, meanwhile, simply got lost in the clutter of bodies and blocked no one.

The bigger problem was that defensive end Arik Armstead (91) was simply too quick for the scheme. He got upfield too fast for DeCastro to gain outside leverage and log him in, thereby forcing Conner to take the play wider than it’s designed. Tartt then forced Conner to cut back inside, where Armstead fell back on him and knocked the ball loose.

The combination of San Francisco’s quickness up front, which caused problems for the Steelers offensive line all day, and Fichtner asking players like Gentry and Washington to do things they aren’t prepared to do, doomed this play from the start.


The 49ers Pass Rush

The Niners have some good rushers up front in guys like Armstead and Dee Ford. They made their presence known early and often on Sunday, making life difficult for Rudolph.

Here’s a prime example. With the Steelers leading 3-0, new addition Minkah Fitzpatrick (more on him next week) picked off a Jimmy Garoppolo pass and returned it to the San Francisco 24, setting the Steelers up with great field position. The Steelers moved the ball to the 9, where they had a 3rd and 6. They lined up in a bunch set to Rudolph’s left with Juju Smith-Schuster singled up to the right. Here’s what happened:

There are several problems for the Steelers here. The Niners play a man-under, two-deep coverage and match the receivers in the bunch, with one defender taking the out route, one the vertical and one the post/in. The Steelers ran the exact same formation and route on the goal line at New England in week one and the Patriots played it the same way (with a similar result). San Francisco, it seems, had a pretty good idea what to expect once they saw the bunch. Kudos to them for being prepared, and shame on Fichtner for not anticipating the Niners would have studied the New England tape and been ready for this concept.

It’s possible Fichtner ran the same play here because Rudolph was comfortable with it and he didn’t want to run something near the goal line that was new or unfamiliar to him. Still, a wrinkle of some sort on the route, like a shallow cross that gave the Steelers an underneath option in the middle of the field, may have made things more difficult on the Niners.

Or maybe not. Rudolph may not have been able to make a play no matter what route combinations we ran because of how quickly the San Francisco rush converged on him. Look at the pressure the Niners get just by bringing four. The ends are upfield quickly and compress the pocket, forcing Rudolph to step up into a tackle twist stunt. He bounces around a bit and tries to escape but is brought down just as he crosses the line of scrimmage. Technically, this is not a sack but it sure feels like one. The Niners were credited with just two sacks on the night but they had three others like this where Rudolph was hurried from the pocket and dragged down just across the line.

There’s another problem with this play and it exists in its design. Frankly, from a conceptual standpoint, I don’t know what the Steelers are doing. Right guard David DeCastro pulls to his left as if to sell a run, which makes sense since Rudolph fakes left to James Conner. The pulling guard and play fake are seemingly designed to displace the middle linebacker. He’s in man coverage and flows with Conner, which indeed opens the middle of the field. None of the receivers attack the area the middle backer has voided, however. All of the routes are vertical. Why fake a horizontal stretch designed to move an underneath defender unless you’re going to throw some sort of crossing route to exploit the backer’s movement? Without a crossing route, the play fake simply takes Rudolph’s eyes off of the defense. And pulling DeCastro removes an interior pass protector, making it easier for the Niners to get penetration. Once Rudolph gets his head up from faking the rush is closing in and he has to run for his life. It’s a great job by San Francisco's front four to create pressure but a curious play design for this situation by the Steelers.


The Interception

This is Rudolph’s worst moment of the day. It starts with pressure from the Niners’ front four (again), as Rudolph is forced to duck away from Ford’s speed rush and escape to his right. He’s in good shape right up to the moment he releases the ball. Rudolph can throw it out of bounds or try to fit it high and outside to Johnny Holton, who is coming back to Rudolph along the sideline. Either option is safe given the situation. Instead, Rudolph commits the cardinal sin of all quarterbacks by throwing across his body towards the middle of the field, where 99% of the time it seems that bad things happen. A bad thing happens here for sure, as cornerback K’Waun Williams falls back in on the play to make the interception. The Niners, trailing 6-3 at this point, convert the interception into a touchdown drive for their first lead of the game.

This play is all on Rudolph, although it’s certainly forgivable. We’ve seen Ben Roethlisberger throw more than a few interceptions in this fashion scrambling around trying to make a play. The hope is that Rudolph will learn from it going forward.

More disappointing than the pick itself is the undisciplined penalty taken by left tackle Alejandro Villanueva on the previous play. On a 1st and 10 from the Steelers 37, Rudolph hit James Washington on an out cut for a 9 yard gain to the 46. The Steelers would have had a 2nd and 1 with a great chance of getting a new set of downs near midfield. It was an ideal way to start the second half - a drive that eats some clock, gives the Steelers favorable field position and gets Rudolph feeling confident. But Villanueva inexplicably run-blocked on a nine-yard timing route and wound up downfield, nullifying the gain. Two plays later, Rudolph threw the pick.

The penalty may seem like a small thing in the grand scheme of things but it helped change momentum, and eventually, the lead. In close football games, details matter. Rudolph’s interception was a killer. It never would have happened, though, if AV had been sharper with his details.


Redemption

If the interception was Rudolph’s worst moment, his response to it (twice) was his best. First, Rudolph hit Smith-Schuster in stride on a perfect third down throw that JuJu took 76 yards to the house. It was a great job by Rudolph of stepping up into a cluttered pocket and delivering a ball JuJu could catch and run with (note the key block by Xavier Grimble at midfield, by the way, that allows JuJu to turn the corner and get down the sideline):

I love how Rudolph, despite being harassed all day by the San Francisco pass rush, hung tough here and kept his eyes downfield. He didn’t look at the rush or get happy feet. He just took his drop, got set and released the ball on time. That sort of poise speaks volumes about the potential this kid has. He made physical mistakes on Sunday that can be corrected with reps. But the mental part of his game already resembles that of a veteran.

Following this throw, the Niners reclaimed the lead by running the football down the throat of the Steelers defense. The 259 yards San Francisco rushed for against Cincinnati last week did not appear to be an aberration. Their ability to pound the ball up the middle underscored how much the Steelers missed Vince Williams, an under-rated run-stuffer. In any case, the Steelers got the ball back down 17-13 with just under 11:00 to play. Rudolph went right to work.

Fichtner astutely noticed that Verrett had come on to the field for San Francisco for the first time. He wasted no time going after him. Washington drew a flag on Verrett on a post route that was beautifully thrown by Rudolph and looked like it might go for six. The very next play, Rudolph did this:

Notice how he moved the safety away from Johnson with his eyes and then froze the defense with a shoulder fake at the back of his drop. Having thrown so many short and timing routes, that shoulder fake looked perfectly natural because it came as Rudolph hit his last step. Rather than release the ball, though, Rudolph reset and launched a beauty to Johnson at the goal line. It was a great spot for Fichtner to dial up the double move.

Johnson, to his credit, had frozen Verrett with a shoulder fake of his own at the point in his route where he would normally break in or out. When Verrett chopped his feet to break with Johnson, the rookie from Toledo cruised by the veteran corner with ease. The sample size is small but Johnson looks like the real deal at receiver. He runs crisp routes, gets separation and can make people miss with the ball in his hands. In the absence of Antonio Brown, the Steelers need a play-maker to compliment Juju. It won’t shock me if the player we acquired with the 3rd round pick in the AB trade becomes that guy.


Disappointment?

It would be nice if this were a happier ending. I’d love to be telling a “Rudolph Saves the Day” story right now (there’s a Christmas joke in there somewhere). Unfortunately, it’s not. If you’re disappointed at the result, that’s understandable. If you’re mad we couldn’t run the football (again), or got whipped up front on both sides of the ball, or that James Conner fumbled in a big spot (again), I get that too. 0-3 is disappointing. It’s also something Steelers fans are not used to.

Just don’t be disappointed in the young QB. He’s not Ben Roethlisberger yet and he may never be. But Mason Rudolph showed a lot of guts on Sunday. To bring the team back after the terrible interception he threw while enduring a ferocious pass rush most of the afternoon spoke volumes about who this kid might be. In the end, he did enough to win us the football game. It’s just a shame his teammates didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.