One of the complaints about Mason Rudolph’s performance during the 2019 season was the fact that he was often incredibly conservative in his approach whenever he wasn’t taking deep shots down the field. His repertoire largely consisted of short, safe passes. Recently, Pro Football Focus helped us add another layer of contextualization to the discussion.
According to their numbers, only Blake Bortles has posted a higher checkdown rate over the course of the past two seasons. On 305 total attempts during that span, Rudolph has resorted to a checkdown 32 times, or 10.5 percent of the time. Bortles has checked down 56 times on 421 attempts.
A checkdown is when a quarterback, for a variety of reasons, generally due to oncoming pressure, foregoes the standard route tree and chooses a ‘safe’ option of typically releasing the ball to a running back or tight end who is a designed outlet pass in the event that other options are taken away.
Players who do this a lot can be referred to as ‘Captain Checkdown’. We used to hear this a lot off Philip Rivers, who indeed was fifth on the list, but the current Captain is Derek Carr, among starters. He finished third, while Gardner Minshew was fourth in this category.
Now, is this surprising? Of course not. Prior to last season, Rudolph had never even taken the field in an NFL game. Suddenly he was thrust into the starting lineup for a long period of time. He potentially could have started 14 games had he not dealt with injuries or gotten benched.
But when you’re a backup and you’re trying to keep things going, it is very tempting to take the conservative play and live to fight another day. Having a great defense that can largely shut your opponent out helps in making that decision as well, and that’s another thing to keep in mind about Rudolph’s, and even the collective team’s, decision-making on this issue.
I wish that the site had these numbers in their database for subscribers to access, because I would like to know where Devlin Hodges ranked as well. On the surface, it definitely seemed as though he was less likely to check the ball down. But I don’t know if he even threw enough passes to qualify, since it doesn’t specify what the limit is.
Hopefully Rudolph doesn’t have to take the field again any time soon, but if he does, I’m betting the Steelers would want to see him avoid checking the ball down so frequently, whether that’s making reads quicker or taking more chance, or a combination of both.