Rudolph’s Last Stand: A Microcosm

Someday, long after Paul Brown Stadium is demolished and long after the 0-16 Cincinnati Bengals of 2019 are forgotten, they’ll have a National Park dedicated to the site of the last Mason Rudolph pass. Visitors will get a Gettysburg-style pictograph to show them the positions of both sides of the battle, the location of various pieces on the chessboard, and to illustrate what went wrong with the doomed efforts of one Brett Mason Rudolph, one-time NFL QB.

The brochures and the maps will show Rudolph, surrounded in the pocket but with a clear view of his downfield options on third down, vs a poorly set up zone coverage from one of the NFL’s worst defenses. James Washington runs between a couple of defenders to Rudolph’s right, but considering Rudolph’s aversion and inability to throw right, Washington might as well be invisible. Vance Mcdonald is wide open in the middle of the field, appearing to have more than enough room to convert the 1st down… but, unfortunately, he’s a “Tight End”, a positional designation that visitors to the Rudolph’s Last Stand National Park won’t recognize, the term having been eliminated from the NFL’s lexicon many decades earlier. The “Tight End” was a player who was a combination of Offensive Lineman and Receiver, who could be used to catch passes or “block” (an obscure football action in the violent days of the late 20th Century and early 21st-century football, before the NFL’s total head injury protection makeover).

Being that Mcdonald is a “Tight End”, that he was more than a few yards past the line of scrimmage, and in the Middle of the FIled, he was also invisible or at least incomprehensible to Mason Rudolph.

So it was that, despite an easy 3rd down conversion being available directly in front of the QB, fate would have it that Rudolph got locked on to young Wide Reciever Diontae Johnson to his left, and despite Johnson being surrounded by enemy forces, Rudolph seemed determined to throw confidently into the tiny window might have a chance at success… but then proceeded to experience buyer’s remorse as his arm couldn’t cash the check that his decision purchased, and the ball fell at the feet of three defenders and a visibly frustrated Diontae Johnson. Johnson sent an immediate missive as he returned to basecamp that said something like, “WTF Immediately!!!”

Headquarters seemed to get the message, as they decided to relieve Rudolph of command and put him out of his misery. Another once-promising officer candidate in a long history of promising officer candidates bites the dust. Entry to the park costs only a 3rd round pick and admission is free every November 24th.

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So, something that has seemed inevitable to me for at least a month finally transpired. The Steelers finally had enough of the downward spiral of Mason Rudolph. Duck Hodges has an incredibly easy act to follow: he just has to be better than the worst QB in the NFL and, with this current Steelers defense, it might be enough to win most games––hell, it might even get them into the postseason, something that was outrageously unlikely when their HOF QB was lost for the season in week 2 in the Steelers BM era (which either stands for what you do about 12-24 hours after eating or the era before their defensive MVP came to town).

Duck just has to resemble a real QB in terms of confidence and pocket presence, show the occasional ability to locate a wide freaking open receiver in the middle of the field, and the slightest ability to make a play or two, That may not be enough to win a Super Bowl this season, but it sure seems like it might be enough to keep his teammates engaged and confident, and it might at least make it worthwhile to see if Hodges and this offense can improve, instead of becoming more dysfunctional on a weekly basis. That will greatly improve the Steelers playoff chances this year, might help bolster their readiness to be a contender next year, and will at least make Sundays better entertainment. Midway through the second quarter of this week’s game, I was as bored and disengaged as I have been watching a Steelers game since at the Kent Graham era. I actually had the thought, “This is so predictable and frustrating, I don’t think I can maintain interest much longer.” I guess I wasn’t the only one with that thought.

And, I guess the Steelers braintrust DOES value winning and a potential playoff position more than developing a QB who doesn’t show enough to deserve that patience.

Does Duck deserve the praise? The hopes of millions of Steelers’ fans? He’s not perfect––I mean he’s a rookie QB with very little experience. But if you’re looking for a guy to groom, someone with possibility in his game, he can be it. He’s got a quick processor and he hasn’t yet become gunshy. He still believes in himself and he’s good enough at the game that he plays with a natural feel and isn’t overly robotic or confused. He makes mistakes yet makes fairly good decisions with the football. He can use his feet to move both within the pocket and to make a play when opportunity allows. For now, he’s earned the opportunity to see what he can and can’t do. His inexperience is like a mask. Only playing is going to reveal his true identity.

STARS:
James Washington made an incredible play in the open field, stiff-arming and then faking to the ground the last defender. All of that was set up by a pass that hit him in full stride (a rarity this year) but Washington made a special play to finish and get in the end zone.

Minkah Fitzpatrick seems to be in the right place at the right time an awful lot. In fact, he’s been in the right place at the right time more often than anyone in the NFL this year when it comes to taking away the football. God bless Minkah and everyone responsible for bringing him to Pittsburgh.

Bud the Stud. On a game-clinching sack-fumble-fumble recovery, Dupree set his career-high in sacks with 7. There seems to be at least a possibility he’ll get 3 more this season, which would pretty much make Hell freeze over and which would make the Waldo 3-4 pass rusher formula the best predictor ever. As fired up as the Steelers will be this coming Sunday, he might get there by December 1st. If the defense can just figure out what to do with their inside LBs, they could be truly dangerous going forward. The Steelers pass coverage, in terms of actually covering receivers and defensing passes– it may be at an all-time high point. It is utterly astounding how the miscommunication and breakdowns in coverage are suddenly rare. It is even more ridiculous that simple––even easy completions––are being contested on the regular. There’s something truly special brewing here. This should come as news to people who claimed Mike Tomlin incapable of building a defense.

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Kudos to Bennie Snell and no-name Kerrith Whyte, who weren’t playing at an All-Pro level, but who at least stabilized the run game––albeit against a hideous run defense. Kudos also to STD, smithessmokin, and yours truly, who I think were the only people in the entirety of predraft, interwebs discussion of RBs who not only liked Whyte as a prospect but liked him for the Steelers. He seems like a nice addition.

Something I hear frequently from the fanbase: Terrell Edmunds is terrible. It reminds me a lot of what people said about Bud Dupree last year. Old habits die hard. Edmunds has been much, much better since Fitzpatrick arrived. This year he’s coverage has been tighter and he’s rarely been beaten.

On the long pass yesterday to Tyler Boyd, he was in perfect position, he battled with legal hand fighting and position, he turned and looked for the ball—he just got out-rebounded by a guy who made a spectacular play with only one hand free. It’s hard for me to give him a negative grade for that, just as alI wouldn’t for Haden on the following play in the EZ—undertrhrown ball. Boyd made another great play, QB got lucky… shit happens.

In both cases, I thought coverage was good and the other guy just made a play. They get paid, too.

Edmunds hasn’t been spectacular overall, but he’s hardly been the weak link.

I have no idea what happens from here, but this much I can tell you: the Steelers will be a better team next Sunday than they were the last time they face the Browns. They have some challenges left on the schedule, but if they can manage to win the games they should win and perhaps steal one from the teams they shouldn’t be expected to win… there could be a couple of extra games added to the schedule in January.

As I always say: the Steelers will change direction and make good decisions… but they turn at the pace of a supertanker. The tanker finally made it around to 180. Let’s see if it’s in time to save the season or at least to find out what Duck Hodges has as an actual NFL QB. That should be worth tuning in for.