Four Downs: Mason Rudolph’s history suggests he’ll feature deep ball in Steelers offense
1. Deep Mason-ry
It’s a small sample size, sure, and a skewed one, considering most of the data is from preseason games. But Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph went into the draft with a reputation as a great deep-ball quarterback, and thus far he’s proven unafraid to throw it downfield.
Counting eight preseason games over the past two seasons plus last week’s regular-season debut in the second half of the loss to Seattle, 22 of Rudolph’s 106 attempted passes have been targeted more than 20 yards downfield (according to Pro Football Focus). That 20.7% rate would have led the NFL in any of the past seven seasons. Only twice since 2012 has any quarterback thrown more than 18% of his passes that far during a regular season.
Rudolph has a passer rating of 108.3 when he has thrown deep. Extrapolated over a full season, that deep-ball rating would have ranked seventh in the NFL last season, between guys named Ben Roethlisberger (112.9) and Patrick Mahomes (107.9).
The Steelers trade up to secure Big Ben's future successor, QB Mason Rudolph. No draft-eligible QB had more deep passing yards & TDs in 2017! pic.twitter.com/4QhJYDAH8P
— PFF (@PFF) April 28, 2018
2. Holding it
One function of throwing deeper balls is Rudolph will hold onto the ball longer than Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger tied for the NFL’s fastest-to-throw among starting quarterbacks last season, measured by his average of 2.36 seconds from the snap to the release of the ball and by the league-high 60.3% of his throws that came in less than 2.5 seconds (per PFF).
Rudolph, combining the preseason and regular season, has been one of the “slowest” passers in the NFL: Just 39.6% of his attempts come in less than 2.5 seconds, and his 2.86-second average is among the highest in 2019.
Risky throw here. Down and time running low. Only need a FG to stay in the game. Mason Rudolph holds the ball, buys time and trusts his receiver. It worked. pic.twitter.com/CIwYbmwoaG
— JG (@JoeGoodberry) April 5, 2018
3. Mister Everywhere
The Steelers knew they were getting a versatile player in Minkah Fitzpatrick. PFF breaks down just how versatile.
Through his first 18 NFL regular-season games, Fitzpatrick lined up at five “positions” on the defense, as defined by PFF: slot corner, free safety, outside cornerback, “box” (hybrid linebacker) and “D-line” (mostly on blitzes).
He’s played slot corner the most snaps in a game seven times, five times most often been an outside cornerback, four times been mostly a free safety and for two games mostly played in the box.
Is it alarming Fitzpatrick has played the position he will play for the Steelers (free safety) during a majority of just four games in his career thus far? Of Fitzpatrick’s 1,066 defensive snaps, just 199 (less than 19%) have been at free safety. He’s played in the slot twice as often and as an outside cornerback 43% more often than free safety.
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) September 17, 2019
4. Speed kills
The Steelers acquired Fitzpatrick, in large part, for his playmaking. And a large part of Fitzpatrick’s playmaking is borne out of his speed. His speed helped Fitzpatrick make the biggest play of his brief NFL career.
During his 50-yard interception return for a touchdown against Minnesota in December, Fitzpatrick was tracked as the second-fastest-running defensive player carrying a ball last season at 21.85 mph. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, only New England’s Devin McCourty (22.05 mph) was faster when he had an 84-yard interception return against Buffalo.
Fitzpatrick’s speed could pay immediate dividends this weekend against a San Francisco offense that not only has the NFL’s fastest ball-carrier for a 2018 play (Matt Breida was moving at 22.09 mph during a 33-yard run against Tampa Bay) but two other players who have combined for three of the 17 fastest offensive plays through two weeks of this season. Receiver Deebo Samuel has a reception in which he ran 20.66 mph and a run in which he ran 20.93 mph, and running back Raheem Mostert was moving 21.03 mph during a touchdown run that was called back because of penalty in Week 1.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .