The Steelers defeated the Bengals 34-11 in blowout fashion Saturday, a final result absolutely no one expected. The big win served as a Christmas miracle for fans, sparked a new quarterback debate, and gave the Steelers’ playoff chances a bump in the right direction. And as always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had.
1. (Mason) Rudolph saves Christmas
I’m writing this as I dodge your tomatoes — I know the jokes are old already but they’re too much fun, OK? Those of us who write about the Steelers have been missing something fun to talk about for weeks, so we’re definitely going to overuse the Rudolph/Christmas jokes for the few days we can. It’s a little too perfect. Is the NFL scripted? Moving on.
Third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph, who I admittedly stated last week wouldn’t be much of an improvement over Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett, proved the exact opposite, leading the Steelers to their best offensive performance of the season. He even had the team’s best game at quarterback since Ben Roethlisberger in 2021. It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s somehow true.
Mason Rudolph becomes the first Steelers QB to pass for 250+ yards and 2+ touchdowns in a game since Ben Roethlisberger in 2021. pic.twitter.com/aIThrAtNKy— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) December 23, 2023
With a patched-together defense and a third-string quarterback, the Steelers managed to dominate one of the AFC’s hottest teams directly following a dismal three-game losing streak. It was a miraculous victory.
All of that to say, use that as the lens you read the rest of this article with. There will be some critiques and references to unsolved problems the Steelers still have. That’s unavoidable. But nothing should outshine the best Steelers victory of the past few seasons that segued directly into the holiday season. Enjoy this win. Merry Christmas, BTSC.
2. The Steelers’ quarterback controversy isn’t that simple
Let’s make one thing very clear here: Mason Rudolph balled out on Saturday. Again, he had the best Steelers quarterback performance since Big Ben two seasons ago. And he certainly outdid anything Kenny Pickett or Mitch Trubisky have ever done in a Steelers uniform. If it was purely about riding the hot hand, it couldn’t be more obvious: whether Kenny Pickett is healthy or not next week, Rudolph gets the start.
But I don’t think it’s that simple. If Pickett is good to go next week (and this is an “if”), benching him would more or less spell the end of his chances at being the franchise quarterback Pittsburgh drafted him to be. NFL teams know this. Benching quarterbacks is no simple thing, especially if they’re young and developing. It’s more than just who gives the team the best shot at winning each week — it’s about big-picture confidence and development.
I’ve been on team “Move on from Pickett” since midway through this year, and while he’s done nothing since then to change my mind, I’ve generally been on board with giving him until the end of the season no matter what to prove otherwise. Would staying with Rudolph in a season where playoff hopes are already slim be more of a push to win meaningless games than plan for the future? I’m not sure. But if you still think that Pickett can be a franchise quarterback, it makes no sense to want to bench him next week.
As for myself, I don’t see Pickett as that quarterback of the future, and seeing Mason Rudolph play what would’ve been the best game of Pickett’s NFL career in his first start of the season only furthered that case. Because I’m a fan and I like winning, I’m generally hoping that Rudolph gets the start in Week 17. But I don’t think it’s as easy a decision as many would believe. Do the Steelers still owe Kenny Pickett the last few starts of his second NFL season?
3. The Steelers defense deserves more credit
Lost in all the well-deserved hype for Rudolph and George Pickens is the fact that the Steelers’ patchwork defense somehow held a very solid Bengals’ offense to only 11 points and a first-half shutout. Keep in mind, the Steelers entered the matchup down their top four safeties and two of their top three linebackers, only to lose the third to injury mid-game. And yet, despite some lapses in coverage, the unit played an incredibly solid game that definitely surpassed expectations.
In the secondary, Veteran corner Patrick Peterson was great in coverage in his first career start at safety, showing the positional versatility that might be a bigger part of his later career. On the other hand, Eric Rowe, straight off the practice squad, had a passable outing as a coverage safety despite his struggles against the run. Both Peterson and Rowe recorded interceptions on Saturday.
At linebacker, the Steelers lost their lone remaining starting-caliber player in Elandon Roberts, trudging on with the unit led by the formerly retired Myles Jack. Jack looked surprisingly athletic for an injury-prone linebacker only a few weeks off the couch, leading the Steelers to only allow 59 total rushing yards all game.
The Steelers’ pass-rush and defensive line were the only healthy defensive positional groups heading into the game, and they held up their end of the bargain, contributing to the team’s stellar run defense and pressuring Bengals’ quarterback Jake Browning all game. Alex Highsmith even recorded an additional interception. It was an all-hands-on-deck performance from the defense, with the reserve players stepping up and stars playing like they should. And for the first time in weeks, the Steelers’ coaching kept the team focused and performing over expectations. It was a beyond-impressive performance from Pittsburgh’s undermanned defense on Saturday.
4. A redemption game
The two most polarizing names in Pittsburgh sports media last week were head coach Mike Tomlin and wide receiver George Pickens, and deservedly so. There was no denying that the Steelers had been one of the worst-coached teams in football over the past few weeks, dropping games against inferior opponents, playing uninspired, and having a locker room that seemed full of conflict and discontent.
The star of that show was second-year wide receiver George Pickens, who had been showing his displeasure with the team’s direction more each week, and it was reflected in his effort on the field and interviews with the media. From the outside, it looked like an absolute mess. Even current NFL players, like the Bengals’ Tyler Boyd, noted Pittsburgh’s apparent “lack of camaraderie.” And maybe there was a mess, but it was all cleaned up by the time Pittsburgh took the field on Saturday.
Mike Tomlin coached out of his mind, keeping his deflated team motivated and his short-handed defense performing. He didn’t bench Pickens either, as many of us thought he should, and the talented receiver responded with the best game of his career, tallying nearly 200 yards with two receiving touchdowns. It was an Antonio Brown-like day for an offense that hasn’t seen an offensive performance like that since well, Antonio Brown (for clarification, I’m talking about one game here — Pickens has a long way to go before we even think about comparing the two, talent or attitude-wise).
It shows that even when the sky appears to be falling for the Steelers, there’s still always hope for the team to break out of its rut of underperformance and drama to field a legitimate NFL offense every now and then. And while it certainly doesn’t absolve the many issues that still exist around Tomlin and Pickens, the two are hardly lost causes at this point in their careers. Let’s not dive much deeper into the negatives, either. Both aren’t going away anytime soon, so it’s best to focus on what they still bring to the table, which is more than it seemed to be last week.
Am I saying the future is suddenly bright for the Steelers after a singular win? Absolutely not. But it isn’t as dismal of a picture as it looked before Saturday’s game.
5. Odds and ends
- Random caveat to consider here: the only two games where the Steelers’ offense has looked passable this season have both come against the Bengals. Are we getting fooled into thinking this team has potential based off of one defense they match up favorably against? I think the real answer is more optimistic than that. But there’s still something to consider here.
- Myles Jack and Eric Rowe turning in solid performances for the Steelers defense shows why it’s so important to take advantage of the veteran slots on practice squads.
- Jaylen Warren’s block on Calvin Austin’s touchdown run was a thing of beauty.
- Speaking of which, Calvin Austin! He still exists! I still have my doubts about him turning into anything other than a very occasional gadget player in this Steelers offense, but there’s some hope yet. He would’ve recorded a big catch against the Bengals in addition to his touchdown run if the ball hadn’t been underthrown.
- Mike Tomlin was 2/2 on challenges Saturday. Again, the win was a Christmas miracle.
- One thing that immediately stood out to me regarding Mason Rudolph’s play was that he seemed to be far and away the best Steelers quarterback this year at going through his progressions and staying in the pocket.
- The Steelers’ two-minute drill at the end of the first half was the most aggressive they’ve been all season. It was almost like the team as a whole is more confident with Rudolph under center.
- The Steelers’ secondary at times reminds me of how I used to tackle in high school. This is not a compliment.
- Regardless of your thoughts on the Rudolph/Pickett starting debate, we should all be able to agree that the Steelers have no need for Mitch Trubisky on their roster next year as an overpaid QB2. Rudolph appears to be a much better and cheaper candidate for that position.
- One more point on Rudolph: his professionalism through this rollercoaster of a season has been nothing short of impressive. He’s become a very easy guy to root for.
Win or lose, this was without a doubt the most interesting Steelers game this year. They were aggressive, the broke tendencies, and they were fun to watch. It’s refreshing to finally watch a Steelers game that isn’t the football equivalent of oatmeal with nothing in it. I hope the team that appeared against the Bengals this week shows up again in the next. Pittsburgh takes on the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday at 4:05 p.m. ET.