Throughout the Pittsburgh Steelers season, I will be doing a weekly piece on an intriguing matchup to watch for each game. The focus will be on choosing an important battle for the upcoming game and give you some background information that could be something to keep an eye on come game time. For example, it could focus on key players on each team that will be going head to head or how a defense will try to stop a specific player. Let’s get into it.
Somehow it’s already Week 17 of the NFL season. The Steelers are looking to cap off their 12-3 season with a win that would ultimately knock their AFC North rival, Cleveland Browns, out of the playoffs. The last time these two met in Cleveland it was the infamously known for the Myles Garrett helmet bonking of Steelers quarterback, Mason Rudolph. Now, a full year later, Mason Rudolph is making his first start since that night, ironically, in Cleveland.
Thursday, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that three more players will be sitting alongside their 17-year veteran quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. With the only thing left to play for is the difference between the second and third seed in the AFC, the Steelers have decided to sit center Maurkice Pouncey, outside linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward against the Browns on Sunday. With most of the Steelers’ star players inactive it’s hard to judge just how vanilla the team will be Sunday.
That is if the game is still played Sunday, with the Cleveland Browns battling their own COVID-19 outbreak that shutdown their facility early Thursday morning. At this point, you truly do not know who will be suiting up for the Browns if the game is played Sunday. This leaves me no choice for our last matchup to watch of the 2020 regular season.
Mason Rudolph vs. Cleveland Browns Defense
With the lack of preseason this year, we were robbed of seeing any sort of development by the Steelers’ depth players. One of the more interesting battles in the preseason would have certainly been that of the backup quarterback between Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges. After the turbulent offensive 2019 season, which included Rudolph losing his starting spot to an undrafted rookie quarterback, he certainly had a lot to prove coming into year three.
Seeing what is sitting behind Roethlisberger should be very intriguing not only to fans but also to the front office. They have many decisions to make as soon as the 2020 season closes. The biggest likely being the decision to extend their franchise quarterbacks contract and how they may approach the 2021 NFL draft if they choose to move on. I’m not so dense to think this game will largely shift the minds of the Steelers’ top brass in either way. However, when the quarterback that general manager, Kevin Colbert, reportedly had a first-round grade on gets meaningful snaps it will make you sit up in your seat a little.
Many are calling this “Rudolph’s Revenge Game” due to the Garrett helmet swing, but are overlooking that Rudolph was in the midst of a horrific game. Improving on his night that included a passer rating of 36.2 and four interceptions should be his main focus.
I did the honors of watching all of Rudolph’s passes against the Browns last year and it’s actually funny to see the comparisons to the Steelers offense of this year. While obviously, Roethlisberger hasn’t been having four-interception games, the places on the field Rudolph is comfortable throwing the ball is very similar to Roethlisberger. You see a short, dink and dunk offense with some deep outs sprinkled in and inconsistent deep balls.
The other similarity being Rudolph’s inability to throw the ball down the middle of the field. Three of his four interceptions against Cleveland game on throws 10 or more yards down the middle of the field. They come from a mix of poor ball placement and just flat out bad decisions.
The other thing that gave Rudolph a ton of problems was the pressure Cleveland was able to generate. Once he got a hit a few times you could see his confidence start to dwindle and his fundamentals went with it. You can see here, on a simple drag route on 3rd and short, the pressure from the left side of the line causes Rudolph to rush. He ends up throwing the ball in the dirt.
These are the types of plays you’re going to be looking out for against Cleveland this time around. Can Rudolph, in year three, instead of staying still and throwing it into the ground, step up in the pocket and make the simple throw to keep the drive alive?
It wasn’t all bad against Cleveland. Rudolph did do some nice things, just not on a consistent enough basis. You can see here, he drops this ball in the bucket to Johnny Holton, unofficially 46 air yards. Except, Holton can’t bring the pass in.
This time around, Rudolph won’t be throwing the likes of Johnny Holton and Tevin Jones. While the Steelers receivers haven’t been poster boys for good hands this year, you’d still like to think Rudolph has more trust in the overall group this year than the one he was throwing to last year around this time.
If the Steelers can slightly tailor the gameplan to Rudolph’s strengths with some sideline timing patterns and deep crossers, which have been a shot in the arm for the Steelers offense in general, I think he can do some nice things in Cleveland.
It should be a relaxing game day for Steelers fans as their team trots into the playoffs regardless of the results of week 17. If Rudolph can have his “revenge game” and knock the Browns out of the playoffs in the process, well, that’s just icing on the cake.