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What to expect from Mason Rudolph today, and in the future

Mason Rudolph returns to Cleveland, in a very different situation than he left it last year.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Mason Rudolph walked into First Energy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns on November 14th, after one of his best games as an NFL quarterback. Against the Los Angeles Rams Mason Rudolph played like an NFL starter, posting the 6th highest passing yards the Rams would give up in 2019, and avoiding turnovers. The difficulty of the matchup was compounded by the Steelers run game struggling monumentally, gaining only 42 yards, the second lowest total the Rams allowed. The Rams were 5-1 in games where they gave up less than 85 rushing yards, the Steelers ran for half that and won.

I’m not going to tell you Mason Rudolph won that game, it was 17-12 and 9 of the Rams points came with the Steelers offense on the field, a fumble return and a safety. I’ve talked about the game before, and how the Steelers offense scored 10 points while giving up 9, and the Steelers defense scored 7 while giving up 3.

Mason Rudolph wasn’t a problem in that game, he showed real growth after an up and down game against the Colts, threw passes with anticipation and put up efficient numbers despite having no help from the run game, a center who was struggling with snapping that day (that’s where the Rams defensive TD came from) and being pressured on over 40% of his throws.

He went to Cleveland on a 3-game winning streak, following his best performance of the year.

We all know how the game ended in Cleveland. but you may not remember just how badly Mason Rudolph played that day before the helmet incident that would dominate coverage of the game. Through the first 54 minutes of the game, Mason Rudolph had completed 17 of 35 passes for 160 yards, 1 touchdown and three interceptions. He had been sacked twice and fumbled the ball on one of them. With the Browns up two scores and playing in prevent defense Rudolph would bring his completion percentage over 50% on the last two drives, but before those final drives, and the terrible conclusion to the final drive, he was having a horrible day.

After that game I put out a film room on what the Steelers offense was doing to help Mason Rudolph be a better quarterback in the NFL, something at the time I liked to call “The Rudolph rules.” Four things the Steelers needed to do to help Mason Rudolph play quarterback in the NFL. They were:

  1. Give him simple reads to get him comfortable.
  2. Split the field into easy to read chunks.
  3. Don’t rush his progression.
  4. Don’t allow pressure.

Link is right below if you want to read that article.

In 2019 Mason Rudolph got a chance to start, he struggled early, found his groove and then fell apart for a few games, lost his job and got to sit and watch Devlin Hodges quarterback his team. When he got a shot to play again in week 16 he looked very much like the quarterback that played against the Rams, and not like the one we saw against Cleveland and Cincinnati before getting injured. He showed potential, but at no point in the season was he a decent NFL starting quarterback. He was a college quarterback getting by in the NFL, and showing the potential to grow into an NFL quarterback.

What makes 2020 Rudolph different from 2019?

1. Growth. Mason Rudolph isn’t the same quarterback he was last season. He got to play and experience the NFL, he got to sit and watch Devlin Hodges, and then watch this offense through its struggles and successes under Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers also hired a quarterbacks’ coach this offseason to work with Rudolph and the other backups. As Matty Peverell wrote about this week, even Ben Roethlisberger is talking about the growth he’s seen from the young signal caller. (Link below in case you missed it)

2. An offense suited to him. Last season Mason Rudolph stepped into Ben Roethlisberger and Randy Fichtner’s offense and was in over his head. The Steelers took a bit of time to alter the offense to one that fit him better (and implement the Rudolph Rules successfully). Outside of just a quarterbacks’ coach, the Steelers brought in Matt Canada because when Ben Roethlisberger was removed from the equation, the offense wasn’t working, and it needed to be more creative. I’ve written a lot this season about the early success of Matt Canada’s influence, and also how teams figured out that his offense and Ben Roethlisberger’s offense looked different, and solved the Steelers attempts to merge them.

With Ben Roethlisberger out of the equation, Mason Rudolph is taking over an offense that has shown it can run the ball and get receivers open in play action, it just can’t do that and succeed with Ben Roethlisberger as the quarterback. Ben does what he does, and he does it good enough that it works, and when he’s on it is one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, it just isn’t very creative and it doesn’t work for other quarterbacks.

With Ben Roethlisberger staying home, the Steelers are free to bring back the play-action, do more with the RPO’s that have been working better recently and are plays that Mason Rudolph ran in college. All of this with direction from a coach that has been working with Rudolph specifically as his quarterback coach.

3. A tactical advantage. The Browns are in bad shape in their secondary. With their starting free safety Andrew Sedejo, their #1 corner Denzel Ward and their #3 corner Kevin Johnson all on the Covid-19 reserve list, the Browns are down 3 of their top 5 defensive backs. They will turn to Sheldrick Redwine, Tavierre Thomas and M.J. Stewart to help defensive snap leader Terrance Mitchell (who was going to be their nickel corner had Greedy Williams been able to play) and strong safety Karl Joseph as they try to defend the Steelers 4 talented wide receivers, one of few positions that will be at 100% for week 17. It should be a pretty hefty mismatch advantage for the Steelers offense.

4. A lot of pressure. Not pressure to win, this game doesn’t really matter to the Steelers, he won’t have Art Rooney II breathing down his neck if the Steelers lose this game. The Steelers won’t have center Maurkice Pouncey in this game, and J.C. Hassenhauer will be playing instead. The Browns defensive line is in good shape and the Browns know they need a strong pass rush to help the depleted secondary. Rudolph should expect a higher pressure rate than the 32.7% he saw last year in Cleveland.

But more than that, the Steelers defense is also going to be missing players against a Cleveland offense with all of its receivers back from the Covid list. Terrell Edmunds is out, as is Joe Haden, and both the pass rush and run defense will miss Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt. Baker Mayfield will have his own tactical advantages on offense. This game could be high scoring with the absences for both defenses, putting even more pressure on Mason Rudolph to score points, especially with the backup kicker playing. If the Steelers fall behind and are forced to pass more, that puts even more on Rudolph’s shoulders.

Mason Rudolph is in a position to succeed, without organizational pressure to succeed, in a game where the Steelers are going to need him to play well to win. He needs to show the growth we are hearing he has made, and become more than the player he was in 2019. To do that he will have to show the growth we are hearing about.

Will Mason Rudolph take that step?

Mason Rudolph showed talent, he showed a learning curve headed in the right direction and when he was playing well and not in over his head, he was smart and efficient with the football. He just needed to learn to be an NFL quarterback.

But there were also some bad signs. Mason Rudolph had a tendency to stack bad plays in 2019. He would make a mistake, throw a bad pass, or see a defender make a good play and fall just short of making a turnover and it would affect him. His reads would get slower, he’d go from throwing passes in rhythm to double-clutching the ball and throwing late. The game right before he faced the Rams, the 2019 Steelers win over the Colts was a great example of it.

After the first drive, in which Rudolph was executing at a high level, ended with an interception, Mason Rudolph struggled to make reads, throw the football on time, and he made inexplicable errors, looking off open receivers and then throwing to covered ones as time ran out.

Those negatives in his game made me question if he had the right mental makeup and personality to be a successful NFL quarterback, where one of the most important attributes is being able to put a bad throw behind you and keep going, something Ben Roethlisberger epitomizes with his ability to throw a bunch of interceptions in one half of a game, and come out in the second half and throw the same routes to the same receivers to mount a comeback. Devlin Hodges took over for Rudolph, beating the Bengals and Browns largely because he has that personality as well (even if his talent level doesn’t match Rudolph’s).

The end of that awful Cleveland game in 2019 made me question it even more, as his day had spiraled downward and ended with him chasing down Myles Garrett after having his helmet ripped off. I’ve seen Ben Roethlisberger take a lot of wicked, dirty hits, many after the play was over. I’ve yet to see him go after a player afterwards like Rudolph did then. Rudolph was riding the roller coaster, to invoke Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin, and that is something you can’t do. Especially as the leader of the offense. He spiraled downward throughout the game, and when he took a late hit from Myles Garrett followed by his helmet being ripped off he chased Garret down, creating an opening for the helmet attack that led to Maurkice Pouncey being suspended.

Note I’m not in any way saying Rudolph caused, provoked or is in any way responsible Myles Garrett’s actions. Nor are they even remotely comparable. But if he doesn’t go after Garrett with his helmet off, Garrett doesn’t have the opportunity to escalate the situation. We’ve seen Vontaze Burfict intentionally try to injure Ben Roethlisberger after the play was over, Ben Roethlisberger never chased him down for it. The leader of the team has to set the standard, he can’t be riding the roller coaster and losing his temper, no matter what the situation.

One of the many things I’ll be looking for from Mason Rudolph is how he deals with setbacks in this game. The in-game pressure will be compounded by this being in Cleveland, with Myles Garrett being a captain for the game. He’s gong to have setbacks, Cleveland will be coming after him and you bet there will be chatter and a little extra nastiness directed his way. I expect them to try very hard to get into his head and get him off his game. They did it in 2019, and with the playoffs on the line, they will ramp it up this week.

How he responds, how he moves past bad plays, how he keeps calm when they try every trick to get him riled, that’s what I’m looking for. Because that, in my opinion, is the biggest hurdle Mason Rudolph needs to clear to become a starting quarterback in the NFL.