Ready or not, here it comes:
*BREAKING NEWS: Mason Rudolph is not Ben Roethlisberger. He should not be expected to be Ben Roethlisberger.
• Seems like the above simply is stating the obvious, but apparently not, if the booing fans at Heinz Field are to be believed.
• In each of the last two games at Heinz Field – against the Miami Dolphins on a Monday night, and then the following Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts – there has been some booing of the home team, specifically the offense. Whether the customers’ angst is being directed at the offense as a unit, at coordinator Randy Fichtner’s play-calling, or at Coach Mike Tomlin, the reaction is a combination of impatience, unreasonable expectations, and a sense of entitlement.
• And really, it all comes down to the inability to recognize, or accept, that Mason Rudolph is not Ben Roethlisberger.
• At his news conference earlier this week, Tomlin was posed a question about the offense’s performance in the red zone, about how in 2018 the unit led the NFL in touchdown percentage per trip into the opponents’ red zone while the 2019 version is ranked 28th in the league and is some 35 percentage points worse than a year ago, and to what he might attribute that decline.
• Tomlin actually laughed out loud before offering something about this offense still writing its story, and the whole exchange brought me back to Saint Vincent College in the summer of 2015.
• That was the offseason when Tomlin introduced the drill now known as “seven shots,” where the ball is placed on the 2-yard line and it’s offense vs. defense, first-team vs. first-team. During OTAs and minicamp, the drill was done with the players wearing helmets and shorts, but come training camp it typically was done in full pads.
• Tomlin explained the drill as a chance to work on short-yardage, both from the perspective of the offense and the defense, but it also served as a staging ground for the team to attempt 11 two-point conversions during the regular season, eight of which were successful (72.7 percent).
• When the No. 1 offense was on the field for “seven shots,” it was Roethlisberger at quarterback, and then some combination of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Heath Miller, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton filling the five eligible receiver spots. With Roethlisberger as the triggerman, it was virtually unstoppable. Bell or Williams could run it, all of them could catch it. This firepower extended to other areas of the field as well, and over the final eight games of the season, the Steelers averaged almost 32 points a game.
• The 2015 Steelers scored 45 touchdowns, then 47 in 2016, 43 in 2017, and 54 in 2018. That became the new normal for the franchise that initially rose to dominance because of a great defense complemented by an offense that ran the football better and more consistently than the competition.
• All of the fireworks, all of that offensive firepower changed the perception of the team in the eyes of the fans, and over the course of several seasons what began as groundbreaking and exciting became expected.
• With Roethlisberger at quarterback, there would’ve been nothing wrong with those expectations, but once he was lost for the season to elbow surgery on his throwing arm, well, common sense should have prevailed and tempered the assumption that things would continue as they had for the Steelers in that phase of the game.
• And it’s not even a fair comparison to look at Roethlisberger’s first half-dozen NFL starts vs. Rudolph’s, because of the respective supporting casts and the offensive system each player was asked to execute.
• While Rudolph is surrounded by youth and relative inexperience at the running back and receiver positions, Roethlisberger was able to give the ball to Jerome Bettis and throw it to Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. And in 2004, the Steelers went through an entire training camp at Saint Vincent College working to, in the words of Bill Cowher, “re-establish the mind-set,” which was code for embracing a physical style and complementing that with a series of run-the-ball centric game plans.
• Cowher and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt limited Roethlisberger even more than Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have limited Rudolph, because Roethlisberger averaged only 21.2 pass attempts in his 13 starts as a rookie, while Rudolph has averaged 29.2 attempts in his five starts so far this season.
• In comparing personnel, Rudolph doesn’t have anything close to a Bettis in the backfield, neither in experience, dependability, durability, or in stature among his teammates. The receivers, with the exception of JuJu Smith-Schuster, are inexperienced both in terms of years in the NFL and also in terms of playing time within the Steelers offense. And maybe the most significant factor to consider in making the comparison between a young Roethlisberger and a young Rudolph is that this offense has been developed and adjusted to conform to Roethlisberger’s unique talents and puts the onus on the quarterback, while the 2004 offense generally asked the quarterback, whether Tommy Maddox or Roethlisberger, to be one piece of the puzzle.
• The 2019 offense has to get better, and it’s fair to believe the improvement should start at the quarterback position, but it’s not fair to expect Rudolph to be another Roethlisberger. Certainly not now, and maybe not ever. Steelers fans should understand what Roethlisberger brings to the quarterback position and appreciate the level at which he plays the position.
• And most importantly, remember that Mason Rudolph is not Ben Roethlisberger.
NFL AND TV STILL A PERFECT PAIR
• According to data compiled by Nielsen, through five weeks of the 2019 regular season, the NFL is averaging 16.4 million viewers for its broadcasts, which represents a six percent increase over 2018. To put that number in perspective, during a Thursday night head-to-head matchup between Giants-Patriots and an American League Division Series game between the Astros and Rays, the NFL game drew 16 million viewers, while the Major League Baseball game attracted 3.67 million.
• And while the NFL game aired on FOX while the MLB game was aired on a cable platform, Astros-Rays was an elimination game, while New England was a prohibitive favorite over the New York Giants. Besides, an elimination game the night before between the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers aired on FOX and drew only 5.86 million viewers.
• More recently, the Monday Night Football telecast matching the 2-4 Steelers vs. the winless Dolphins averaged 10 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN Deportes, according to Nielsen.
• In the Pittsburgh market, the game delivered an 11.0 rating on ESPN and a 29.4 on WTAE-ABC for a combined 40.4 rating. Just in case anyone believed Pittsburgh wasn’t a football town.