As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for their third game of the season, there is a lot to ponder in advance. The team has changed fundamentally since the last time they took the field, in light of the season-ending injury suffered by franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Understandably, that’s going to be the focus of the day.
Or more accurately, not so much on his absence as on the presence of his backup, Mason Rudolph, the second-year quarterback whom they had a first-round grade on a year ago, making the first start of his career on the west coast against a 2-0 San Francisco 49ers team.
While he largely looked the part in a half-game cameo appearance seven days ago, the Steelers need more from him—and the defense—to win this one, and many more throughout the next 14 games. He did have some ball placement issues, for example, especially outside the numbers and down the field, and his processing speed must be accelerated. He has some mechanical and decision-making issues to sort through as well.
But they are workable. At least on paper, this is a team that can win games with Rudolph leading the way. The offense is still the same with him, with minor modifications. They will, for example, likely make am ore concerted effort to establish the run. And they will build the play-action passing game off of that. Rudolph was successful deploying it last week.
Will Donte Moncrief be a part of this thing? That remains to be seen, and if he’s out there, how big of a role will he play? We saw rookie Diontae Johnson play 21 of the final 24 snaps last week after Moncrief dropped his lone target, and the three plays he wasn’t out there for were in one-receiver sets.
Yet James Washington wasn’t as prominent in the second half. He had only three targets with two catches. Will he play more after a week of practice? Mike Tomlin said that a bigger role for him could be an “unintended consequence” of having Rudolph on the field, as they played four years together in college.
There’s so much more to talk about just offensively, but let’s turn—briefly to special teams before we go to the offense. After Ryan Switzer muffed a punt last week, they put Johnson on that return duty. Will we see that again?
Now…out goes Sean Davis, in comes Minkah Fitzpatrick. With five days to prepare himself, how up to speed—and fast—will he be able to play? How will he and Terrell Edmunds communicate on the back end? The defense is already adjusting to having a rookie mouthpiece in Devin Bush, who did it in a real game for the first time last week.
Bud Dupree has a rookie sixth-round pick at left tackle this week. He needs to win that matchup the way he has failed to win so many other choice matchups in his first four seasons. Jimmy Garropolo’s quick release isn’t going to help him, however. But perhaps Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt will, if they can get interior pressure the way they have been.