As we will do every Saturday to get you ready for the week’s game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. The key area to watch in tomorrow’s matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
X Factor: Mason Rudolph
An obvious choice, I know. But there’s no need to be coy here. Rudolph must play even better than last week, where he played pretty well, if the Steelers want to beat the Ravens. It’ll be – by far – the toughest challenge he’ll face all season.
Baltimore’s defense isn’t as elite as past years and there’s ton of new faces. Gone are the days of Terrell Suggs, CJ Mosley, and Eric Weddle. Now, they’re led by Matthew Judon, Kenny Young, and Earl Thomas. But it’s still a talented group and most importantly, one that looks to create plenty of chaos and confusion.
Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale wants to make quarterbacks think. To be unsure of what they’re seeing. To make mistakes, get knocked around, lose trust in their game. They do that by rotating the safeties late, walking linebackers into the A gaps, and stressing protections by bluffing and hiding blitzes.
Like I said on Friday’s podcast, this is a Ravens’ defense that had to try and find ways to fool Patrick Mahomes. Gameplanning for Rudolph is a walk in the park.
So can Rudolph win the chess match? His work ethic and film study are excellent, that’s widely reported and known, but seeing the Ravens for the first time is difficult. The 49ers had a good defense but aren’t as creative while the Bengals are fairly vanilla schematically and aren’t nearly as talented.
Mike Tomlin said they ran the Wildcat last week to cut down Rudolph’s exposure. To go from him handling 70 snaps to 50. There’s nowhere to hide this week. The Wildcat won’t work again. That cat’s out of the bag. So Rudolph has to be the guy. And one interception can be the difference in a potentially close game.
I like what Rudolph has done so far. He’s tough, a leader, a likable dude, who has shown progress in the few weeks he’s been the starter. But Baltimore will be his hardest test yet and I simply don’t have the confidence he’s going to get the job done this week. And they won’t win without a great performance from him. So if I’m wrong – I hope to be – and we’re discussing a Steelers’ victory Monday, it’s because #2 had an awesome afternoon without major mistakes.