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Rudolph, Fichtner Agree Early Downfield Opportunities Were Passed Up By Young QB

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph didn’t take many deep shots down the field in last Sunday road loss to the San Francisco 49ers and especially in the first half. Rudolph’s passing chart from his first career start last Sunday shows that he only completed two passes more than a yard past the original line of scrimmage. Many have wondered since Sunday’s loss if Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was way too conservative with Rudolph in his first NFL start, and especially early in the game, and on Friday he was asked during his media session if that was indeed the case and plan.

“I don’t know if it was conservative,” Fichtner said Friday. “I thought we put ourselves in position. You know we had some opportunity throws even for some shots and you know, if you don’t connector throw them, it never really materializes. But, you know, if you’re asking about even the first series, we put ourselves in a long situation just outside of potentially a longer field goal and my choice was to be safe and at least try and get as much we could get back there to get points.”

The Steelers offensive possession of the game against the 49ers started at the San Francisco 33 yard-line following an interception by outside linebacker T.J. Watt. The Steelers offense then gained all of 5 yards on three short pass plays and it resulted in Pittsburgh needing to settle for a field goal.

Rudolph completed eight of his 15 total pass attempts for 40 yards in the first half and all but one of those passes and any kind of air yardage involved. The lone deep pass, a left side throw of 19 yards past the line of scrimmage to tight end Vance McDonald, was high and uncatchable. It’s probably worth noting that Rudolph did have a throw of 16 yards past the line of scrimmage to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on the third down of the second offensive possession. That throw was into the end zone and just out of reach of Smith-Schuster. That throw goes down in the books officially as a 13-yard throw, however.

While Rudolph did attempt some deeper passes during the second half, he didn’t have many of them. One of those deep passes early in the second half was to down the left sideline was too long for rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson catch. Another one to wide receiver James Washington, while incomplete, drew a pass interference penalty. The final deep pass of Rudolph’s in the game that flew more than 16 yards past the original line of scrimmage went to Johnson down the left side for a touchdown.

When Fichtner was confronted on Friday about it seeming like Rudolph was able to go down the field a little bit more in the second half than he was in the first half, the Steelers offensive coordinator provided a very interesting response.

“We were able to go down the field early, you got to throw them,” Fichtner said. “I mean, you gotta throw it, you gotta attempt to throw it there.”

Fichtner was immediately asked if he thinks Rudolph was hesitant to make those supposed early deep throw opportunities and instead decided to pass them up for shorter targets.

“Whether he’s hesitant or didn’t feel comfortable or didn’t like the matchup or not, that are all the things that go into play,” Fichtner said. “It could have been a protection, maybe he had to step a certain way in the protection, he had to get off of it. Those types of things. I’m not second-guessing Mason at all. We’re gonna try and be as aggressive as we can be from start to finish.”

So, is all of this more to do with Rudolph being a young quarterback? Fichtner was asked a similar question on Friday.

“I mean, maybe. I mean, you know, I don’t look at him as young and he’s been here a year and a half and he’s been here,” Fichtner said. “Maybe in-helmet perspective, young, maybe first time on the road, first time silent cadence. First time, you know, that situation? Maybe, but he knows that’s not an excuse. I know that’s not an excuse and our performance has to be better.”

If you’re feeling like Fichtner threw his young quarterback under the bus on Friday, it’s worth pointing out that Rudolph did admit to passing up some opportunities to throw the football down the field against the 49ers defense.

“Yeah, for sure,” Rudolph said if there were down-the-field opportunities in Sunday’s game he wishes he wouldn’t have passed up. “I mean, opportunities in the first quarter, really in the first couple of drives, that I could’ve been a little more aggressive towards. So, you know, learning experiences. And I know I’m an aggressive person. That’s who I’ve always been at the quarterback position. So, a little unlike me, but mistakes that you always look forward to cleaning up and I think we have already this week in practice.’

Is being an aggressive quarterback more about taking shots downfield, or trying to fit the ball into tight spots, wherever that might be?

“You know, I think you’re taking what the defense gives you,” Rudolph said on Friday. “Obviously, you know, I do love pushing ball down the field. And, you know, chunk plays, like Coach [Mike] Tomlin says, eliminates a lot of execution. So, we enjoy taking those chunk plays, but at the same time, if that’s not there, if they’re not having it, you gotta be smart with the ball and check it down and maybe not force it into those tight windows.”

So, did Rudolph really pass up some opportunities to push the football down the field early in the game? Technically, yes, and they are below for you to see.

1Q – PIT-1-10-SF 33 – (13:47) (Shotgun) 2-M.Rudolph pass short middle to 30-J.Conner to SF 33 for no gain (54-F.Warner, 56-K.Alexander).

1Q – PIT-3-5-PIT 25 (5:43) (Shotgun) 2-M.Rudolph pass incomplete short left to 18-D.Johnson.

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