It’s safe to say young quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges fell short in their combined effort to make up for the loss of Ben Roethlisberger and keep the Steelers offense humming like the proverbial Mustang in 2019.
Nope, when you pass for a combined 2,828 yards, 18 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and post a combined quarterback rating of 76.7, your team probably isn’t going to do much in the “Championship Chase” department.
And the Steelers didn’t in 2019, as the offense was mostly unwatchable, especially the final three weeks, when the team scored a total of 30 points and lost a total of three games.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, the team missed the postseason with an 8-8 record, while both Rudolph and Hodges missed on their opportunities to force Big Ben into early retirement (or, at least, awkward free-agency).
It’s just too bad nobody else stepped up to help carry the two youngsters—and the offense—to more prosperous results.
People love to romanticize the 1976 Steelers team that managed to win all six of the games Terry Bradshaw missed that year and someone named Mike Kruczek, a guy who didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, started in his place. “Nobody gets past the 50!” screamed team leader Mean Joe Greene in the locker room after it was announced that Bradshaw would miss a significant amount of time with a neck injury brought about by being slammed on his head by Joe “Turkey” Jones in a loss to the Browns early in the season.
It was an almost prophetic proclamation by Mean Joe, who led a defense that allowed a grand-total of 28 points over the last nine games. However, what people may forget is that, while the passing game was certainly compromised in ‘76, the running game was not. In-fact, both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier rushed for over 1,000 yards that year, becoming just the second running back duo to achieve that feat in the same season.
The 2019 Steelers certainly didn’t have a running back duo come close to that achievement, not unless they lowered the bar to 400 yards, a mark eclipsed by both veteran James Conner and rookie Benny Snell. Jr.
Conner led the team with 464 yards on the ground, and if ever there was a personal stat-line that best summed up the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s that one.
Obviously, JuJu Smith-Schuster, the man pre-destined to be the new number one receiver following the unceremonious departure of Antonio Brown, didn’t step up in 2019. Actually, he stepped down in a big way, finishing with just 42 receptions for 552 yards, three touchdowns and a couple of key mishaps at the end of games that, had he come through, may have resulted in wins instead of losses.
Sure, second-year man James Washington made a huge leap, catching 44 passes for a team-best 735 yards, while rookie Diontae Johnson led all receivers in catches with 59 for 680 yards.
Respectable numbers had by both young men. It’s just a shame their numbers made them the top two receivers in terms of productivity in 2019.
Granted, both Conner and Smith-Schuster missed significant time with injuries in 2019, but that does nothing to quiet the argument that neither stepped up to help lead their young quarterbacks.
How about Vance McDonald? If there ever was a tight end who made his reputation on one play, it was McDonald and his stiff-arm of the Buccaneers Chris Conte in Week 3 of the 2018 season. Unfortunately, after having a career year a season earlier, McDonald was mostly invisible in the just concluded one, catching just 38 passes for 273 yards.
How about the offensive line, a veteran unit that was believed to be the best and most reliable part of the offense? It was mostly unimpressive last year. Yeah, sure, individually, some members played better than it appeared (Alejandro Villanueva comes to mind, at least according to Pro Football Focus), but, collectively, not so much.
Speaking of Pro Football Focus, by their count, Maurkice Pouncey, the heavily-decorated center, had 16 shotguns snaps that were off the mark in 2019. That’s not good when those snaps are going to inexperienced and unpolished quarterbacks.
A few years ago, when Dak Prescott stepped in for Tony Romo and quickly became the Cowboys permanent starter, I marveled at how lucky the rookie quarterback was to have such an awesome supporting cast that included tight end Jason Witten, receiver Dez Bryant, rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot and perhaps the best offensive line in football.
Dallas managed to win the division that year, while Prescott has gone on to have a pretty solid career as a starting quarterback.
You might say, “Well, neither Rudolph or Hodges is on the same level as Prescott!” How do you know? Prescott was simply a fourth-round pick in 2016. Perhaps a third-round pick (with a first-round grade) or even an undrafted free-agent from an FCS school may have fared just the same or better in 2019 had he had a similar supporting cast.
We’ll probably never know.