While we all came into Sunday’s game with the understanding that the result didn’t particularly matter—the Buffalo Bills were never likely to lose to the Miami Dolphins, and so they were bound to be locked into the third seed—the consequence of that was that the focus shifted to the man under center.
That is particularly because it wasn’t Ben Roethlisberger, so sat out the finale in preparation for the postseason, but also specifically because it was Mason Rudolph, the team’s 2018 third-round pick, whom they identified as a first-round talent by their own admission, but who had, frankly, not played like it in extended action last season.
In a year without a preseason and limited offseason workouts, Sunday’s start was by far Rudolph’s biggest stage of the year, knowing full well that how he performed on the day would carry heavy weight on evaluations of where he is in his career, and where he could go.
Unsurprisingly, his play offered a mixed bag, largely consisting of that which we had seen before, but generally more consistent. It’s notable that he hit a very nice deep ball to Diontae Johnson in the first half. He also connected on a key third-down conversion to Chase Claypool on the opening drive, though no first-half drive actually got into the end zone.
He ultimately finished the first half 11 of 18 passing, arguably with one drop by James Conner on a sharp, slightly high pass underneath that nevertheless could have been caught. He produced 134 passing yards on those 18 throws, with no touchdowns or interceptions. He did take one sack by Olivier Vernon in the red zone, failing to ‘feel’ the rush coming from his blind side.
Rudolph would open the second half with another deep-throw completion on third down, this time hitting Claypool for 41 yards. The drive unfortunately stalled after that, featuring a first-down Joshua Dobbs play that resulted in a throwaway, and they settled for a third Matthew Wright field goal, again from 46 yards.
The wind went out of the Steelers’ sails, unfortunately, after Rudolph made a dangerous gamble, attempting to make a connection on third and long while he was under heavy pressure, intercepted and returned to the 20. Unfortunately, the officials missed a clear roughing the passer penalty on the play that would have negated the interception.
But he had a surgent fourth quarter in him that nearly resulted in a comeback, showing resilience in connecting on possession downs and finding Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster for touchdowns. They came within a two-point conversion attempt of tying the game, on which Rudolph was livid, believing Claypool was interfered with.
So, what to make of this game? The third-year quarterback made several important and impressive throws, both down the field and on money downs. He had an ugly interception, which technically should have been negated, as well. No, he didn’t look like a future franchise quarterback in his only extended action of the year, but…progress?