A lot of comparison has been made between the first starts of Mason Rudolph and Ben Roethlisberger, and those comparisons are going to continue. The better comparison isn’t stats and records though, but what offenses can do to help young QB’s succeed. With that thought I want to look at three teams that dealt with similar situations, the 2004 Steelers, the 2018 Ravens and the 2016 Rams.
In 2003 the Pittsburgh Steelers went 6-10 under QB Tommy Maddox, when they threw the ball on 56.3% of all plays. That off-season the Steelers hired Ken Wisenhunt to coordinate the offense, signed Deuce Staley to be their main RB, and drafted Ben Roethlisberger as their quarterback of the future. Over the first 2 games of the new season the offense threw the ball on 51.2% of their plays, including 59.5% passes when their rookie QB was called into action halfway through game 2.
From game 3 onward the Steelers attempted passes on 37.3% of their offensive plays, easily last in the NFL, while winning 14 straight games. Ben recorded a solid 82.5 passer rating in that first appearance, and an impressive 99.4 passer rating in his 14 starts.
A significant increase in running the ball eased the transition of the young QB, and the team would continue into Roethlisberger’s second season, adding TE Heath Miller in the first round, then rushing the ball more than any other team and throwing the fewest passes in the NFL. That season the Steelers went 11-5 in the regular season and won the Super Bowl.
But everyone on this site knows that story, what about other young QBs tasked with taking over during the season?
Lamar Jackson took over for Joe Flacco in week 10 of the 2018 NFL season. The rookie QB was not a polished passer and was taking over an offense that to that point was throwing the ball on 63.8% of plays, the 8th most in the NFL. Under Lamar Jackson, the Ravens would throw on 36.3% of plays, almost perfectly flipping the percentage. They also turned a 4-5 start into a playoff berth by winning 6 of their last 7 games. In Jackson’s second season the Ravens are throwing more, but still only 50.2%, which ranks 29th in the NFL, and are currently 2-1 and in first place in the AFC North. Jackson’s 84.5 passer rating in 2018 is a very solid number considering his lack of polish as a passer in his rookie year.
So far I’ve covered Ben Roethlisberger’s start on a team with a great defense, offensive line and strong RBs, and Lamar Jackson who himself added to the run game in Baltimore. For my third QB, I want to look at Jared Goff, and how his usage and performance changed early in his career.
Jared Goff, like Lamar Jackson, took over the starting QB job for the 10th game of his rookie season on a team that was 4-5. The Rams had called pass on 61.2% of their plays that season, and under Goff that number would increase to 62.6%, moving from 13th to 9th in percentage of plays that they would try to pass. They also would go 0-7 to finish the season while Jared Goff put up a 63.6 passer rating.
That off-season the Rams would draft 2 WRs and an athletic pass-catching hreat TE. They would follow what seemed like a focus on passing the ball by passing on 54.6% of plays in 2017, ranking 26th in the NFL for percentage of passing plays. They would go 11-5 that season and make the playoffs while Goff recorded a 100.5 passer rating. Even though they drafted to improve their passing game, the team ran the ball more than the majority of teams, and Jared Goff made the Pro-Bowl.
The Steelers started this season with Ben Roethlisberger, and through 2 games, part of which Mason Rudolph played, the Steelers threw on 74.1% of plays, ranking 4th in the NFL. In week 3 the Steelers tried to pass 29 times, and ran 22 times, 56.9% of the time. That percentage is affected heavily by Rudolph scrambling 4 times in week 3, if you count those as pass plays the ratio becomes 33-18, a 64.7% pass play percentage. In the game and a half Mason Rudolph has played, he has a 86.0 passer rating.
I didn’t go through and adjust all the other seasons fro scrambles, but when you consider that Lamar Jackson had a total of 19 scrambles between his spot play the first half of last season and his 7 starts in a year where he broke the record for most rushes by a QB in a season since 1950, it is clear that 4 scrambles in a game is an outlier. Ben in 2018 had 12 scrambles.
However you treat scrambles, one thing is clear, the Steelers need to change their offense to fit and support Mason Rudolph better. Jared Goff puts up incredible stats while leading the NFL by a large margin in percentage of passes to slot WRs, the Ravens reworked their entire offense to fit Lamar Jackson’s strengths as a passer, and the Steelers in 2004 ran more deep routes and power runs to give Ben Roethlisberger the best chance to succeed.
Randy Fichtner needs to rework the Steelers offense, and he needs to do it quickly.