This week, we are continuing our “One Play” series by focusing on a gem from Mason Rudolph in the season-finale at Cleveland.
Before I continue, I want to offer the disclaimer that I am not entirely sold on the notion that Rudolph has what it takes to become the Steelers’ next quarterback. He must mature in a host of areas, both mental and physical. However, what we saw from Rudolph in his lone start of the 2020 season showed significant improvement over his 2019 performance as the stand-in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger. If Rudolph can continue to develop in a re-vamped offense under new coordinator Matt Canada, he may not be the long-shot many perceive him to be.
Our focus here is on a play that occurred with 7:13 remaining in the second quarter. The Steelers, trailing 10-0, faced a 3rd and 11 from their own 34 yard line. With pressure in his face from a collapsing pocket, Rudolph stood tall and delivered a strike up the right sideline to Diontae Johnson for a 41 yard gain. The completion kick-started an offense that had been dormant on its first three drives. The Steelers proceeded to score points on five of their final six possessions (three field goals, two touchdowns) and, despite a lineup stocked with back-ups, nearly knock off a Cleveland team that needed a win to qualify for its first playoff berth in 20 years. It was a valiant effort by the Pittsburgh reserves, and Rudolph in particular.
Here is the play in its entirety before we break it down:
The Steelers aligned in an empty set with doubles to the boundary and trips to the field. Cleveland countered with an overload look that put four potential rushers into the short side, where Pittsburgh had just three blockers (the center, left guard and left tackle) to account for them. Rudolph recognized the overload and motioned for running back James Conner, who was aligned in the right slot, to shift into the backfield as added protection. Conner’s presence balanced the personnel on the short side, which kept Rudolph from having to throw hot if Cleveland brought all four:
It may not seem like a big deal, but the fact that Rudolph recognized the front, understood the protection scheme and knew to make an adjustment is an encouraging sign. It shows growth from 2019 when center Maurkice Pouncey had to make the protection calls since Rudolph was still focused on recognizing defenses and thinking about where to go with the football. The rate at which Rudolph can master the mental demands of playing quarterback in the NFL will likely determine the arc of his professional career.
Once Conner was re-aligned, Cleveland settled into a two-high look with the boundary corner pressed on Johnson. The safeties were just eight yards off the ball. Given that it was 3rd and 11, this suggested they would defend the sticks aggressively rather than bail to deep halves of the field. Pittsburgh had been seeing these types of coverages since week eleven of the season when Baltimore determined they could not push the ball down the field and were essentially running a dink-and-dunk offense. Crowding the receivers and daring the Steelers to throw deep had become the defense-of-choice of Pittsburgh’s opponents ever since.
Cleveland’s decision to show cover-2 versus trips was suspicious, however. In this look, they either had to cover the three receivers by walking a linebacker out of the box and playing five-on-five inside, which gave an advantage to the offense, or they had to leave one of the three receivers uncovered at the snap. Cleveland may have been willing to play with a light box here because they did not believe the Steelers would run the ball on 3rd and 11. Still, Rudolph had to determine whether this was true cover-2 or some sort of post-snap rotation from a cover-2 shell.
To do this, his eyes went right to boundary safety Karl Joseph (42) at the snap. Joseph’s drop would tell Rudolph what coverage he was getting. If it was true cover-2, Joseph would backpedal aggressively so he could get over top of Johnson on anything up the sideline. If Joseph was squatting or rotating to the middle of the field, Rudolph would know he had single coverage on Johnson outside.
Joseph’s reaction indicated this was not cover-2. He took a controlled backpedal and his eyes went to the opposite side of the field, where he read the release of tight end Vance McDonald (Joseph is the left safety in the following GIF):
In the photo below, you can clearly see Rudolph zeroing in on Joseph and Joseph reading McDonald. Joseph’s reaction revealed this was some form of “Island” coverage, which is a common defensive adjustment to trips. In “Island,” the corner to the single receiver is left one-on-one (on an “island”) while the rest of the secondary plays a match-up zone to the trips. The boundary safety’s job is to read the release of #3-strong (McDonald) and to carry him up on anything up the seam or to the post. The field safety, field corner and alley player, meanwhile, account for the remaining receivers.
Once Rudolph identified the coverage, he opted for the deep shot to Johnson. Unfortunately, by the time he set his feet, the pocket had collapsed. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (98) blew through guard David DeCastro and into Rudolph’s lap. Rudolph stood firm. He couldn’t step into the throw but he maintained the proper launch angle with his elbow and was able to muscle the football down the field:
This wasn’t some garden-variety throw. Rudolph released the ball at his own 25 yard line and it arrived at the Cleveland 35. It travelled forty yards in the air and came down in perfect position just off of Johnson’s outside shoulder where the corner could not defend it.
That in itself was impressive. But watch Rudolph’s release in the GIF below. Richardson didn’t just prevent Rudolph from stepping into the throw. He also deflected Rudolph’s arm, disrupting his follow-through. When you factor all of this in, it was a remarkable play by the young QB:
The value of that big play was huge for the Steelers’ offense. Prior to it, they’d run 22 plays for 75 total yards for an average of 3.4 yards per play. Their longest play of the game had been a 13 yard completion to Chase Claypool. The reception by Johnson kick-started a run that saw them close the game by gaining 319 yards on their final 43 plays (7.4 yards per play). Rudolph hit on two more deep balls — a 47 yard throw to Johnson and a 41 yarder to Claypool — and the offense racked up 22 points in two and a half quarters. The completion to Johnson turned a switch and the Steelers became a different team offensively.
What, then, does this one play tell us about Rudolph? For starters, it tells us he’s beginning to understand protections and how to check out of a vulnerable one without compromising the integrity of the play. His quick recognition of Cleveland’s front and the adjustment with Conner cost him only his outlet receiver. On 3rd and 11, that was a worthwhile sacrifice to ensure he’d have enough time in the pocket to push the football down the field.
It also tells us he’s improved at identifying read-keys and at diagnosing coverages. His decision-making process is speeding up and looks much improved from 2019, when Rudolph often held the ball for far too long and looked like a deer in the proverbial headlights when trying to read coverage.
This play tells us, too, that there are no residual effects from the concussion Rudolph suffered in 2019 from the wicked shot he took from Baltimore’s Earl Thomas or from his infamous fracas with Myles Garrett. Rudolph is far from skittish. He anchored himself in the pocket here, kept his eyes down the field and did not flinch as the imposing Richardson barreled in on him. Rudolph has the hair and smile of someone who looks like he just walked out of a J. Crew catalog. But he is a tough kid. That toughness is serving him well.
Finally, this play tells us that Mason Rudolph has a heck of an arm. While some have complained that his ball lacks velocity and that he’s not the rifleman that a Josh Allen or Aaron Rodgers are, the throw Rudolph made here was special. His upper-body mechanics were flawless and allowed him to drive the ball into a tiny window forty yards down the field without the benefit of a follow-through. I doubt Ben Roethlisberger could make this same throw, under these same conditions, at this point in his career.
Which isn’t to suggest Rudolph is the superior quarterback, of course. Rudolph has a long way to go before we can feel confident in him as a starter, much less a player of Roethlisberger’s caliber. Roethlisberger’s return should come into clearer focus later this week after his scheduled meeting with team ownership to discuss his contract situation. It seems reasonable a deal will be worked out. Still, there are no guarantees. If Roethlisberger is not back, Rudolph is the likely starter for 2021. That may seem unappetizing to some. I, for one, am willing to give it a shot. If the 2020 finale at Cleveland is an accurate indication of Rudolph’s growth, there are reasons to be optimistic.