Expert Analysis


7 min read

Mason Rudolph’s Interview as Starting QB Continues vs. Ravens

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) throws in the third quarter during a Week 16 NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pa.

After the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to score more than 26 points in any game throughout their first 14 games of the 2023 season, they are now coming off back-to-back wins with two straight 30-point offensive outbursts. Without question, the biggest change in the past two weeks for the league’s 27th-ranked scoring offense has been the insertion of Mason Rudolph into the starting lineup.

Rudolph has been in the Steelers’ quarterback room for six years as a backup, playing behind Ben Roethlisberger, Kenny Pickett and Mitchell Trubisky. That coach Mike Tomlin has kept Rudolph around for this long as a backup says a lot about his character and qualities as a person, player and teammate.

After operating as the third-string quarterback in Pittsburgh for the past two seasons behind Pickett and Trubisky, Rudolph has been given the opportunity to start over the past two weeks. He has played at a very high level, completing 68.6 percent of his passes for two touchdowns, no interceptions and a league-best 11.1 YPA. He’s done so while leading his team to two convincing wins at home against the Cincinnati Bengals and last week against the “12th man” on the road in Seattle.

Now, after a season full of on the field adversity and the football community questioning Tomlin’s coaching, the Steelers sit at 9-7 with an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth in Week 18 if any of these three scenarios play out:

  • PIT win + BUF loss
  • PIT win + JAX loss or tie
  • PIT win + HOU-IND tie

With one more week to play, Rudolph is not only helping Pittsburgh make a potential playoff push, he's also making a case that he should be competing for a starting quarterback job next season, while increasing his value around the NFL.

How Rudolph Has Changed Pittsburgh’s Offense

On tape, Rudolph has left no doubt that his performance has elevated the entire offense. This includes an improved running game led by Najee Harris, firmer pass protection by the offensive line and a more explosive passing attack led by WR George Pickens.

Typically, when an offensive play-caller is working with his third-string quarterback, he will use more universal passing concepts that quarterbacks with little playing time and practice reps are comfortable executing. Play-callers will try to keep things simple with an abundance of screen passes, concepts with easy check-downs and “Day 1” training camp installation plays. This has not entirely been the case with Rudolph.

In his sixth year with the organization and fifth year in the building with current interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner, the 28-year-old signal-caller has shown a superior understanding of the offense. Pittsburgh has opened up the entire playbook, aggressively attacking defenses for 60 minutes horizontally and vertically, throwing the ball from sideline to sideline and up the field.

It jumps off the tape that Rudolph has earned the trust of Tomlin, the coaching staff and the players in the locker room. The entire organization unquestionably trusts him with the football in his hands.

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The coaching staff’s confidence in Rudolph was illustrated perfectly in his first start this season, against Cincinnati. Up 21-0 and facing a potential two-minute drill to end the first half against the Bengals — with Pittsburgh backed up in its own territory — Tomlin could have run the clock out and been content to end the half with a three-score lead. Instead, the Steelers attacked aggressively once again and drove down the field to eventually kick a field goal that made it 24-0.

As stated earlier, Rudolph has also seemingly elevated the play of his supporting cast. Consider the following numbers regarding his offensive line play and the play of Pickens.

  • OL Weeks 1-15 with Pickett and Trubisky: 187 pressures (14th-least), 31 sacks (9th-least)
  • OL Weeks 16-17 with Rudolph: 21 pressures (7th-least), two sacks (3rd-least) 
  • Pickens in 14 games with Pickett and Trubisky: 52 catches on 91 targets for 814 yards and three touchdowns; per game averages of 3.7 catches, 58.1 yards and 0.21 touchdowns
  • Pickens in two games with Rudolph: 11 catches on 15 targets for 326 yards and two touchdowns; per game averages of 5.5 catches, 163 yards and one touchdown

While this data is from a small sample size, the Steelers’ offensive improvement with Rudolph under center has been measurable and undeniable.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) leads tight end Pat Freiermuth (88) and tight end Zach Gentry (81) and quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) out of the tunnel to warm up before the game against the Chicago Bears at Heinz Field. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

What Shows When Scouting Rudolph

Rudolph is a big-bodied quarterback (nearly 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds) with a similar physical stature to Roethlisberger. Rudolph is not particularly fleet of foot and, having not seen him in person, does not appear to have truly elite NFL arm talent.

The best quarterbacks must win from the pocket to reach elite status in the NFL. Rudolph has shown that ability during the past two weeks due, in large part, to excellent pocket fundamentals that have led to accuracy to all areas of the field.

While in the pocket, Rudolph has shown a complete understanding of the passing game while working through full-field progressions and calmly finishing by checking the ball down when necessary.

Despite his lack of playing time over the years, he appears very poised and confident in the chaos of the pocket under pressure. In these instances, he stands in the pocket courageously and delivers accurately, completing passes in spite of needing to use multiple arm angles from an awkward base.

From a fundamentals perspective, I could not be more impressed with Rudolph’s footwork in the pocket. There have been corrections on tape to be made, including an occasionally elongated step that causes his base to widen unnecessarily, but that is nitpicking considering how tight and in rhythm his feet have been on a play-to-play basis.

For the most part, Rudolph shows quick feet in the pocket and flexibility in his ankles to open up his knee and hips, allowing him to square his body to the target for better accuracy before the throw. The work he’s put in in the classroom and on the field over his six seasons in the NFL has paid off.

One of the keys to Rudolph’s recent success has been high-end accuracy. On shorter passes, he has shown the ability to change ball speeds and throw a catchable ball on multiple occasions. On throws up field, he puts good air under the ball and gives his wide receivers the opportunity to run through the ball and make plays while maximizing run after catch.

As I have stated in all my columns, the most important job of a quarterback is to protect the football and limit turnovers. Rudolph has checked that box. He has not been reckless with the ball and is making smart decisions while operating with a very calm demeanor.

With his ability to keep the offense on schedule, create big plays from the pocket with his arm and limit turnovers, Rudolph has gained the trust of his coaches and teammates and given the Steelers hope that anything is possible heading into Week 18.

Playoff Push and Beyond

Throughout my coaching career, I have always said there are no two quarterbacks in the NFL with parallel journeys. Kurt Warner went from packing groceries to becoming NFL MVP. Brock Purdy started fast as Mr. Irrelevant in San Francisco and, in his second season, is an MVP candidate.

Steve Young didn't start until he was 30 and became a Hall of Famer. And Rich Gannon became the league MVP at 35 after a 13-year NFL journey. Rudolph is on his own unique journey and might be blossoming into a starter before our eyes.

With one more game to play in the regular season, Rudolph’s interview for the Steelers’ starting quarterback job will continue in Week 18 against the Baltimore Ravens. After this season, he will be a free agent, and if he finishes as strong as he has started, he will be valued on the free agent market.

This week is another opportunity to prove that he deserves consideration for a starting role in 2023 — with Pittsburgh or elsewhere.