Third-and-11 from the Pittsburgh 5-yard line. It was the second quarter, which was half over, and the Steelers already were losing, 14-0, to the winless Miami Dolphins. The 59,000-plus paying customers had decided they’d tolerated enough and were booing the home team, and it was impossible to disagree with their opinion.
Painting this particular snap of the football as do-or-die might be overstating things in the interest of dramatic license, but then again maybe not. After all, it sure felt as though the 2-4 Steelers were a loss away from facing irrelevance before Halloween even in the supremely mediocre AFC North, and their young quarterback who was by far their best option at the position for the rest of this season sure seemed to be at a crossroads in terms of developing the necessary confidence, swagger even, to succeed as a triggerman in an NFL offense.
Third-and-11 from the Pittsburgh 5-yard line. Don’t convert from there and it’s a punt from the end zone, which means the Dolphins take over close to midfield with a chance to deliver a veritable knockout punch with another score before halftime.
As he did for most of this night, and as he has done for most of his life as a quarterback, Mason Rudolph stood in the shotgun and received the snap from center, but this time he was decisive and delivered the ball on time and on target. Diontae Johnson ran a crisp route, won his matchup with the Miami defensive back, and when he turned to look for the ball it was where it was supposed to be and he did what he was supposed to do. The result was a 12-yard gain and a first down, and aesthetically it was an NFL caliber pitch-and-catch.
And if it actually didn’t save a season and right a career, it certainly broke the ice. Nine plays later, the Steelers managed a 42-yard field goal that made their deficit 14-3, and after a Minkah Fitzpatrick interception sabotaged Miami’s ensuing offensive possession, the Dolphins being the Dolphins contributed significantly to the 45-yard catch-and-run by Johnson that made it 14-10 at halftime.
From there, things loosened considerably, and while the passing attack still wasn’t what it will need to be for the notion of the Steelers making a run toward competing for a playoff spot more than a pipe dream, it at least was what it needed to be for the Steelers to wake up today at 3-4 instead of 2-5.
This business of Mason Rudolph being more decisive and attacking down the field in the manner in which NFL quarterbacks must to dissuade the opposing defense from crowding the line of scrimmage and eventually choking the life from the offense has been an ongoing issue for months. It started back in the first few days of training camp, and then after it eased a bit as the Steelers got into their preseason, it was resurrected when Rudolph became the full-time replacement for post-surgery Ben Roethlisberger.
It felt as though this were progressing, albeit incrementally during the game against the Ravens, but then Earl Thomas concussed Rudolph, and then three weeks later things seemed to be back where they started, which wasn’t a good thing at all. Since a 2-4 start to the season had the Steelers already perilously close to must-win mode as they took the field against the Dolphins, Rudolph throwing an interception on his first attempt of the game bordered on disastrous.
A second interception in the first quarter was overturned on replay, but the minor detail of cornerback Ryan Lewis being unable to get a second foot down inbounds did nothing to instill confidence in either end of the Steelers passing attack. If you were watching the pocket and the protection, it seemed as though Rudolph was holding onto the ball because he was indecisive, but if you were watching the receivers try to make their way through the coverage it looked like nobody was open.
And so it was that up until the Steelers lined up for third-and-11 at the Pittsburgh 5-yard line, Rudolph was 3-for-9 for 23 yards, with one interception and one sack. Just in case those numbers aren’t sufficiently stark for you, that works out to a passer rating of 2.78.
Then starting with the 12-yard ice-breaker to Johnson and continuing through the rest of the game, Rudolph was 17-for-27 for 228 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rating of 114.4, all of which are much more in line with a professional football team.
Beyond the numbers, it also looked like the passing attack of a professional football team, because the ball was being distributed to different receivers in different areas of the field, not everything was a dump-off throw that required the receiver to compensate with a long run after the catch, and there even were a couple of times receivers were overthrown on deep routes, which at least indicated a willingness to attack all areas of the field.
In the second half, there was a 17-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, a 21-yard pass to James Washington on a second-and-20 following a holding penalty, a 26-yard pass that Smith-Schuster went up and took away from a Miami defensive back for a touchdown, an 11-yard pass to Johnson, and a deep attempt to Smith-Schuster that drew a 25-yard pass interference penalty.
None of those individual plays could be considered spectacular, but together they can be viewed as representing progress. Certainly, there will have to be more of those and the degree of difficulty definitely will increase in subsequent weeks because there are no more games against the Dolphins on their 2019 schedule.
The Steelers can spend this week working to become better and more consistent with a passing attack that flashed competency in spurts for the first time this season, and so they live to fight another day. All of it made possible by third-and-11 at the Pittsburgh 5-yard line.