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Knee-jerk analysis: Steelers find their best QB in win over Bengals

Steelers ride Rudolph and Pickens to 34-11 win over Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

A quarterback with 290 passing yards, multiple touchdowns, and Mike Tomlin winning two challenges? That was truly a 412 Christmas miracle.

This was the most complete game the Steelers have played in years. The last performance this dominant on both ends that comes to mind, oddly enough, was against the Bengals in 2020 when they defeated Cincinnati 36-10 at home.

The Steelers scored touchdowns on their first two drives in the first time since... who can remember, because I can’t off the top of my head. Mason Rudolph threw his first of two touchdowns to George Pickens on an 86 yard touchdown on the Steelers’ second play from scrimmage. And oh, by the way, what a game from No. 14- easily the best of his career. After a very loud week where all the talks around Pittsburgh were about Pickens’ effort, calling out the media, and debates on whether he should be benched as discipline, the Georgia product caught four passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns. Pickens also eclipsed 1,000 yards for the season.

In terms of the man who was throwing him the ball, he was as close to flawless as you could be. What a night for Mason Rudolph. He had the most passing yards of any Steelers quarterback this year, finishing with 290 yards and a passer rating of 124, which is also the highest any Steelers quarterback has had this year. He showed what most of us knew- he isn’t afraid to sling it. He aired it out multiple times to Pickens, and also went deep to Calvin Austin in one-on-one coverage, but the pass was incomplete. Rudolph also now has the completion with the most air yards of any quarterback this season, which was a 44 yard completion down the left sideline to Pickens. He also showed a lot of pocket presence. He didn’t look rushed, he wasn’t flustered, and he made a few plays with his feet, including diving for a first down inside the five yard-line to set up a Najee Harris rushing touchdown.

The bottom line is that Mike Tomlin can’t bench Rudolph. He can’t say lack of points were the reason Mitch Trubisky was getting benched, only to turn around and not give Rudolph another start after throwing for the most yards, touchdowns, and higher passer rating of any quarterback for the Steelers this season while helping the team score a season-high in points. It should be Rudolph getting the nod against the Seahawks.

Now, let’s talk about the defense because several guys stepped up and had big performances (which will be highlighted in the Varsity-JV piece tomorrow). Alex Highsmith played fantastic, getting a sack and an interception, as well as a tackle for loss. T.J. Watt added to his sack total, sitting with 17 on the season after getting to Jake Browning once during the game. How about Myles Jack, though? In his first game since being called up from the practice squad after coming out of retirement, Jack was thrust into wearing the green dot when Elandon Roberts went down with a pectoral injury. He came up very big, finishing with six tackles and a sack, as well as very nearly picking off a pass. With all the issues the Steelers have had at linebacker and with injuries to the position, Jack’s performance was a refreshing one. Patrick Peterson also deserves a lot of love for how well he’s been playing over the last month, and now in his first start at safety, he gets his first interception as a Steeler. Also getting his first interception as a Steeler (in his first game as a Steeler, nonetheless) was Eric Rowe, who picked off Browning and set up the Steelers’ third touchdown.

The pass defense did give up multiple big plays, though. Tee Higgins had an 80 yard touchdown where it looked as if multiple Steelers were out of synch with one another, and the Bengals averaged six yards per play for the game. That said there was very little to complain about in this game. It was as complete a game as we’ve seen in a long time, and a great way to send Steelers’ fans into Christmas., At 8-7, the Steelers will need to win out and get a little help in order to make the playoffs. Is it going to happen? Who knows. Will they get far if they do get in the playoffs? Probably not. That said, this win was the most fun I can recall having watching a game in far too long, and I’ll choose to sip some egg nog and enjoy reflecting on the night before Christmas eve where Mason Rudolph guided the Steelers in an offensive explosion.