It wouldn’t be difficult to find somebody willing to argue that it was the backup quarterback position that doomed the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. After all, they did manage to get to 8-5 with three games left to play, all of them winnable, with clearly sub-par play from the position up to that point. They were in position to make the playoffs.
Both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges have been heavily criticized for their performance, even as novices who had never thrown an NFL pass before this season. Rudolph was a second-year player formerly drafted in the third round, Hodges a rookie college free agent.
Regardless of who they were or where they came from or what experience they had, however, the fact remains that their play combined was among the worst quarterback play that any team faced, and it unquestionably played a key role in their losses.
And wouldn’t you know it, both Pro Football Focus and NFL.com had the same idea about Rudolph. Both outlets independently of one another ranked the third-year quarterback 28th among projected backup quarterbacks entering the season.
“Pittsburgh coaches and fans say they need to see more from Rudolph before honestly evaluating him, which feels like the same sort of sunk-cost fallacy that makes teams stick with starters like Mitch Trubisky for too long”, Gregg Rosenthal wrote for the latter. Pro Football Focus only wrote up analyses for the top five backups.
When the Steelers drafted him in 2018, they said after the draft that they viewed him in the same light as the quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round, namely Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, and Lamar Jackson. They saw him as a player who could potentially succeed Ben Roethlisberger at the quarterback position.
After showing substantial progress in the offseason from year one to year two, Rudolph did have some success early on, at least in terms of being able to get the ball in the end zone often enough, and some of his early interceptions came on drops.
His play dropped off as the season progressed, however, likely for a variety of reasons. Some draw the line to when he suffered a concussion against the Ravens. He bottomed out against the Cleveland Browns, and was benched in the second half a week later.
Hodges took over for the next several weeks, but grew into struggles of his own the more he played, ultimately being benched himself in favor of Rudolph in Week 16. Then the latter suffered a serious injury, and Hodges had to wrap up the season.
The Steelers are counting on significant growth from both of their young quarterbacks after logging 14.5 games’ worth of experience. If they don’t get that, then they can’t afford for Roethlisberger to miss any time.