SANTA CLARA, Ca. – When this season opened, the Steelers did so with the understanding that they had a starting quarterback they could depend upon to right a certain number of the rest of their wrongs. Today, they should have first-hand knowledge that their starting quarterback is going to have to depend on all of them to be able to be what they need him to be.
Ben Roethlisberger is going to have surgery on his right elbow sometime soon, and the Steelers already have announced he will miss the rest of this season. There will be no designated-to-return, therefore no chance of him coming to their rescue as some sort of Christmas miracle. They’re on their own, and the idea behind the team’s immediate announcement of that prognosis was to make sure everyone understood that so they would be able to prepare themselves for what lies ahead.
In this particular case, the next man up is Mason Rudolph, by all indications a capable young man who has all the makings to be as good a backup as this team has had for quite some time. But he is not Roethlisberger, his style of play is different than Roethlisberger’s, and the Steelers need to show they have a clear understanding of that. Certainly a better understanding than they seemed to have here on Sunday afternoon.
The Steelers dropped to 0-3 in what is turning into a bad dream of a season thanks to a 24-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in a game where their offense let them down early in the game when it had a chance to set a tone and then again late in the game when a critical turnover in the form of a James Conner fumble led to the game-deciding score.
This outcome was a shame because it wasted what was exactly the kind of defensive performance the Steelers are going to need, not only to compensate for no franchise quarterback helming the offense for the rest of 2018 but also for after Roethlisberger returns and their goals become more realistically ambitious. The 49ers received the opening kickoff, and their first seven offensive series of their home opener ended thusly: interception by T.J. Watt: punt; interception by Minkah Fitzpatrick; fumble recovery by Devin Bush; another fumble recovery by Devin Bush; settling for a red zone field goal; and lastly run two plays and head to the locker room for halftime.
That’s championship defense right there, and what was most heartening was the way the Steelers were taking the ball away. Opportunistic, making things happen, making plays on the football and catching it when it was floating in the air looking for a pair of hands to fall into. Combine that with rising up after the 49ers moved to a first-and-10 at the Steelers 11-yard line and forcing a 24-yard field goal by Robbie Gould and that’s as good as it’s ever going to get when it comes to defense in today’s NFL.
But instead of that 30 minutes of football leaving the 49ers battered and looking at a significant deficit to overcome against an energized underdog opponent, the home team actually was able to go to its locker room at halftime with a palpable sense of hope. And that was because the Steelers offense squandered those opportunities.
While the 49ers managed just one red zone field goal in the first half, the Steelers only made it into the red zone to attempt one of their two field goals, and their 6-3 lead didn’t really feel like a lead at all.
Despite the four takeaways in the first half and the momentum those should have provided, the Steelers offense managed only five first downs and 76 total net yards while running just 29 plays on six possessions. It would be easy to point to not having Roethlisberger as the reason, but that’s overly simplistic and inaccurately paints the picture that it was all Rudolph’s fault.
Winning with a backup quarterback in the NFL requires all of the other aspects of the team, including the rest of the offense, to pick up its play and support the new guy. The defense did its part, but that didn’t seem to be happening elsewhere, and it started with the design of the offense the team used against the 49ers.
Roethlisberger and Rudolph are different quarterbacks, and that’s beside the obvious disparity between the two in experience and accomplishments at the professional level. And yet to the untrained eye, it looked as though the offense the Steelers were using against the 49ers with Rudolph would have been what they would have used against the 49ers with Roethlisberger.
The Steelers receivers weren’t getting open quickly, and that left Rudolph having to hold onto the ball in the pocket while he waited for something to develop. Maybe he’s too inexperienced to anticipate what should develop and in what areas of the field that should happen, but that has to be accounted for as well. There was a stage of training camp where Rudolph seemed to be holding onto the ball and waiting for things to develop, but once the preseason rolled around, the ball was coming out of his hand quicker and he was more decisive with his decision-making.
Clearly, the Steelers receivers tend toward the young or inexperienced, or both, and defeating NFL defensive backs on the kinds of routes that can work with Roethlisberger as the trigger-man don’t seem to be working with Rudolph. The Steelers finished with 174 net yards passing, but 115 of those came on two completions – a 76-yard catch-and-run by JuJu Smith-Schuster for a touchdown, and a 39-yard catch by Diontae Johnson for their other touchdown. On Rudolph’s other 12 completions, the Steelers netted only 59 yards.
Maybe it’s time to try to scheme the receivers open and put Rudolph in a situation where he can deliver the ball to spots in rhythm and utilize more play-action, rather than have him in the shotgun looking like he’s trying to do a Roethlisberger imitation. And maybe this can serve to open up the running game a bit, because 30 of their 81 yards rushing came on either reverses or quarterback scrambles out of the pocket.
The Steelers finished with five takeaways, including their first two interceptions of the season, which gives them seven takeaways in three games so far, and they are a plus-3 in turnover ratio in 2018.
That’s a good sign, but unless and until the offense capitalizes on those with points, and with touchdowns instead of a couple of field goals, not even winning the turnover battle will equate to winning games.