The Pittsburgh Steelers through for over 5000 yards last season. This year? They are barely on-pace to eclipse the 3200-yard mark, between the 12ish quarters combined played by Ben Roethlisberger and Devlin Hodges, and with second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph being responsible for the rest of it.
Rudolph is completing 66.1 percent of his passes, but he has one of the shallowest depths of target in the entire league. He has completed 109 of 165 pass attempts for 1088 yards with 10 touchdown passes and four interceptions. On the interceptions, however, it has to be added that two came off of passes that were dropped—by Donte Moncrief in Week Two and by JuJu Smith-Schuster last week.
Still, by and large the passing game has been lacking much of an impact for the most part, and certainly not the sort of work that would get wide receivers too excited. Only one player has recorded a single 100-yard game this year as a receiver, and that would be Smith-Schuster, who has one.
After catching 111 passes for 1426 yards in 2018, Smith-Schuster only has 33 catches this year for 459 yards, barely even on-pace to match the yardage output of his rookie season, during which he also only played in 14 games.
Nobody else on the team has even 300 yards, though Diontae Johnson is only one off at 299 on 26 receptions. Both James Conner and Jaylen Samuels are in the top six on the team in yardage, combining for a little over 400 yards between them. Only those six have even 100 yards in receptions.
Rudolph was asked by a reporter earlier this week if he is sensing any frustration from his wide receiver group about the lack of opportunities for wide receivers. Even though they have missed several games between them, Conner and Samuels have still combined to receive 39 of his 161 targets on the year.
“I think if you look at game to game, there is different scenarios, teams are playing different coverages”, Rudolph said. “Any time you have star players on your team, you are trying to get them the ball. That is our focus every week — making sure that they have adequate touches to make plays and we know they will”.
Yet he also explained how ball security is being preached and making the right decisions. He has clearly become a risk-averse passer since getting onto the field at the NFL level. The rare deep shots that he does take tend to be set up by a series of short passes, and he has thrown nearly a third of his passes at or behind the line of scrimmage.
“Sometimes the better thing to do”, he said, is to take the guy who “would have gotten you 8 to 10. Maybe you don’t get the first down, but you help out the net punt that [offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner] talks about.
That’s not going to sound good to Smith-Schuster and Johnson and James Washington. They want to be given a chance to make plays, and all three of them have at different times this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are quietly frustrated but understanding of the situation.