Backup QBs, Washington help Steelers win preseason opener vs. Buccaneers
The chance to be No. 2 was twice as nice for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Friday night at Heinz Field.
Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph did little to hurt their chances of winning the No. 2 quarterback job, and wide receiver James Washington took a step toward earning the second starting wide receiver spot in a 30-28 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Dobbs and Rudolph each directed scoring drives, and Washington caught four passes for 84 yards and scored a touchdown in the Steelers preseason opener.
And in the competition at a position where there is no second string, Chris Boswell showed he’s not ready to give up his job as kicker by making field goals of 33 and 46 yards. Undrafted free agent Matthew Wright made a 42-yarder.
Dobbs, who served as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup in 2018, started Friday and played two series, exiting after Boswell’s 33-yard field goal in the second quarter. Rudolph, last year’s No. 3, entered with 5 minutes, 31 seconds left in the first half and directed three scoring drives — two touchdowns, one field goal — in four possessions before he was replaced by Devlin Hodges midway through the third quarter.
Not to be outdone, Hodges, the undrafted free agent from the FCS’ Samford, threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Tevin Jones in the fourth quarter. He was 8 of 14 for 79 yards.
“I like what I saw from all three guys that played under center tonight,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
Dobbs completed 5 of 8 passes for 85 yards. He had an interception negated by offsetting penalties.
Rudolph also completed 5 of 8 attempts for 91 yards, but he mixed in touchdown passes to Washington and rookie tight end Zach Gentry.
The four-game competition will continue next Saturday when the Steelers host the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I just think we’re all trying to play well. … We’re all just trying to sharpen each other,” Rudolph said. “I think we’re all getting better.”
Dobbs also didn’t want to put an emphasis on the first game, which was played with most second-string and third-team players in the game.
“I just try to compete every day,” he said. “You’re really competing against yourself. Every day, you’re mentally focused on something to get better. Every day, you’re showing up eager to work, eager to learn whether physically, mentally, fundamentally.
“You have to find ways to improve.”
With Tampa Bay owning a near-13-minute time of possession in the first quarter, Dobbs’ second series didn’t occur until early in the second quarter.
He was inconsistent on some short throws but hooked up with Washington on a pair of passes that totaled 65 yards, including a 22-yarder on a third-and-21. Dobbs also made some plays with his feet, running twice for 44 yards on the scoring drive. His 36-yard sprint put the Steelers in position for Boswell’s 33-yarder.
On his first series, Rudolph led the Steelers 64 yards and finished the drive by throwing an 8-yard strike to Washington in the right corner of the end zone with 1:56 left in the half. The touchdown gave the Steelers the lead for good 10-7.
A forced fumble by Tyler Matakevich gave the Steelers the ball back, and Boswell hit a 46-yard field goal with 1:03 to go before intermission.
The Steelers took a 13-10 lead into the second half. Rudolph played two series. On the second, Johnny Holton took a short pass and weaved 59 yards to the Buccaneers 6.
Two plays later, Rudolph thew a 3-yard touchdown pass to Gentry for a 20-10 advantage. The 6-foot-8 rookie tight end went high in the air to snag the pass from Rudolph in the back of the end zone.
It was the first game experience for Rudolph since last preseason.
“Games are always different, but the way I’ve been feeling in practice and in my second year, coming along, I’m more comfortable,” Rudolph said. “I wasn’t worried about how I was going to throw it in a game.”
Among the offensive starters who did not suit up were Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, Vance McDonald, James Conner, Ramon Foster, Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey.
On defense, the absentees included starters Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Sean Davis, Joe Haden and Steve Nelson.
Draft picks Diontae Johnson and Sutton Smith also didn’t dress. Neither did backup corner Artie Burns.
In his professional debut, inside linebacker Devin Bush started and played the entire first half. He got plenty of work, leading the Steelers with 10 tackles over the opening 30 minutes. Cornerback Justin Layne, one of the team’s two third-round picks, also started and played into the fourth quarter.
Bush had eight tackles over the first two series, but he dropped an almost certain pick-6 with 4:27 left in the first quarter when Blaine Gabbert’s pass hit the linebacker on the helmet. Bush made up for it when he teamed with outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi to stop running back Andre Ellington for no gain on a fourth-and-1 at the Steelers 17.
“I love to make plays and I love to play football,” Bush said. “I don’t get tired. I think that’s everything you could want.”
While the Steelers started mostly second-teamers on defense, the Buccaneers came out with their first-team offense, and quarterback Jameis Winston directed a 12-play, 81-yard touchdown drive against the backups.
The drive ended with Chris Godwin catching a wide receiver screen and running through Layne’s tackle for a 9-yard score.
Tampa Bay trailed 30-16 in the fourth quarter but scored a touchdown with 4:47 left and cut the deficit to 30-28 with 10 seconds left.
The 2-point conversion pass after the second touchdown fell incomplete, taking overtime off the table.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .