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Could the Steelers receivers actually improve with Mason Rudolph at quarterback?

Looking at what the Steelers receivers have done when Mason Rudolph plays.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think I will get any argument when I say that Ben Roethlisberger in 2020 and 2021 was not the same player he was in his prime. I know I have gotten plenty when I say Ben Roethlisberger’s deep passing was far worse than it had been from the start of his career through 2018. I think it is pretty clear his arm injury in 2019 had a major impact on Roethlisberger’s game, through a combination of strength, control and confidence in his arm.

I want to make that clear, because I don’t see these stats and plays as an indictment of Ben Roethlisberger’s career, his leadership or mental ability. His arm just wasn’t able to do what it had in the past.

To show that real quick, from 2014 to 2018 on passes that travel 15 or more yards in the air, Ben Roethlisberger ranks 1st in attempts 2nd in passing yards only to Drew Brees, 2nd in touchdowns to Russell Wilson, and 6th in passer rating.

From 2019 to 2021, those numbers fell significantly. From being ranked with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees to sitting with Jared Goff, Andy Dalton and Carson Wentz. Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating on downfield throws dropped from the mid 90s to the low 70s, and the offensive production dropped with it.

And that leads us to the point of this article.

The Steelers have three main receivers currently on the roster, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Of those three, only one played with Ben Roethlisberger before 2019, JuJu Smith-Schuster. A quick look at stats will tell you JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2017 and 2018 season were much more productive than his last two. Not just because of missed time, but what he accomplished when he was healthy.

When you look at downfield throws JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of Ben Roethlisberger’s most efficient receivers on those throws in each of his 5 seasons. The numbers for his deep targets are interesting. In 2017 and 2018 JuJu Smith-Schuster was targeted 50 times, caught 27 of them (54%) for 901 yards (18 ypa) and 7 touchdowns (7.1 targets per TD). He ranked 10th in the NFL in yards, 8th in TDs and 3rd in catch percentage on throws 15+ yards downfield in his first two years.

In 2020 and 2021?

JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 8 of his 15 (53%) downfield targets for 190 yards (12.7 ypt) and 2 TDs (7.5 targets per TD). The only real difference is the number of targets and his yards per catch. JuJu Smith-Schuster was still catching downfield passes and scoring TDs, but the long gains got shorter.

But how did he do when Mason Rudolph threw him the ball downfield?

From Rudolph, Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 11 downfield targets (54.5%) for 176 yards (16 ypt) and 1 TD (11 targets per TD).

Smith-Schuster caught deeper throws at roughly the same rate, for more yards but 1 less TD. At this point the small sample size warning is a big deal, 16 and 11 passes aren’t a big sample size, but what stands out is the catch rate staying constant throughout his career, as long as the quarterback wasn’t Devlin Hodges, JuJu Smith-Schuster was producing consistently.

The higher yards per catch from Mason Rudolph makes you wonder, was Ben Roethlisberger's arm limited enough in 2020 and 2021 that Mason Rudolph could be an improvement who would help boost the other receivers production? Let’s look at the numbers.

From 2019 to 2021 here are the numbers for the other receivers on balls thrown downfield.

Chase Claypool

Roethlisberger: 19/57 (33%), 633 yards (21.1 yards per game), 4 TDs, 1 INT, 11.1 ypa, 92.2 passer rating.
Rudolph: 2/5 (40%), 69 yards (69 yards per game), 1 TD, 0 INT, 13.8 ypa, 127.1 passer rating.

Mason Rudolph has only played one game with Chase Claypool, and that game was one of three 100+ yard receiving games of Chase Claypool’s career. Incredibly small sample size, but one that points to a big uptick in production being a possibility.

Diontae Johnson

Roethlisberger: 16/55 (29.1%), 480 yards (15.5 yards per game), 6 TDs, 3 INT, 8.7 ypa, 60.42 passer rating.
Rudolph: 7/14 (50%), 265 yards (24.1 yards per game), 3 TDs, 0 INT, 18.9 ypa, 135.4 passer rating.

This I didn’t expect. I’ve knocked Johnson repeatedly for his lack of production on deep targets, but look at what he did with Mason Rudolph. That’s still not a great sample size, but to reach the numbers Johnson has with Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph would have to have the following stat line: 9/41 (22%) 225 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INT, 5.5 ypa, 43.85 passer rating.

In order for this small sample size to end up identical to Roethlisberger's numbers with Diontae Johnson it would take some Donte Moncrief levels of production.

Again, we are dealing with a small sample size, and because of that we can’t say that Mason Rudolph is a better deep ball passer than the 2020-2021 version of Ben Roethlisberger, and we can’t say that the receivers will be better with Rudolph than they were with Roethlisberger.

What we can say is that the numbers point to there being a serious chance that every single receiver on the Steelers would be more productive on deeper throws with Mason Rudolph at quarterback than they were with Ben Roethlisberger the last two seasons.

And again, this is not about Ben Roethlisberger's legacy, his leadership or intelligence. His arm wasn’t the same after the surgery. With the Steelers built to run the ball and with a young talented tight end that can exploit any space created by backing up the opposing safeties, increased threat of a deep passing game would be a big boost to the Steelers offense.

It is heartening to know that even Mason Rudolph can likely give the Steelers that.