Kevin Gorman: For Steelers, final Battle of the Backups should be sensational
Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph aren’t the only Pittsburgh Steelers well aware that the preseason finale at the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night is their final audition.
Their teammates have popcorn ready for the Battle of the Backups, the penultimate episode in the Game of Clipboards.
“I’m watching them in the game and jumping up and down, cheering like a real fan,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said of the young quarterbacks. “They’re my teammates, and I’m cheering like a real fan!”
Even Rudolph can laugh that one of the sensational storylines for the Steelers is their competition to determine which quarterback will be second string to Ben Roethlisberger.
“It will be the last for-sure opportunity to play this year, obviously, because Ben’s the starter,” said Rudolph, a 2018 third-round pick from Oklahoma State who grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., not far from Charlotte. “We’re all looking forward to it, taking advantage of it and having a blast.”
The same goes for Dobbs, who beat out incumbent Landry Jones for the backup role last season by shining against Carolina. Dobbs completed 8 of 12 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown and rushed three times for 18 yards and another touchdown for a 137.5 rating, leading the Steelers to three scores in four series.
“Obviously, that was an important game but, for me, Thursday is important because it’s the next game,” said Dobbs, a 2017 fourth-round pick from Tennessee. “It’s the next opportunity to go out and play football, the next opportunity — especially in this environment, where you’re always competing — to show what you can do at the quarterback position, to show how you can run the offense, to show you can execute plays, to show how you can lead your teammates and team up and down the field.”
Rudolph has a clear-cut statistical edge over Dobbs this preseason, so another superlative performance might be required to win the backup job. It’s worth reminding that Rudolph was 5 of 9 for 102 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason finale against Carolina last August, good for a 135.2 rating.
Where Rudolph has completed 65.6 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and one interception and led five scoring drives for a 106.6 rating in three preseason games, Dobbs has completed 53.6 percent with no touchdowns and two interceptions in leading three field-goal drives for a 55.1 rating.
But Dobbs has made more big plays, both with his arm and legs, but threw two picks in the red zone (neither of which was his fault) and had a touchdown pass negated by a questionable offensive pass interference penalty.
“I think it’s been a productive preseason,” Dobbs said. “I’ve been able to move the football, which has been a blast. (The key is) to go out and execute when you get into the red zone. Instead of settling for field goals, you want to punch the ball into the end zone. Finishing drives and putting that final exclamation point on them will be the emphasis this Thursday.”
If the competition is closer than appears, it’s because those numbers are a bit skewed by the caliber of competition. Remember, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has warned not to make too much out of performances against second- and third-string players who might not be on NFL rosters this season.
When Dobbs started against Kansas City, he completed a 43-yard pass to James Washington on his first throw and had a 36-yard scramble to set up a field goal on his second series. When Rudolph started against Tampa Bay, the Steelers punted in three of his first four series (and fumbled in the other) before he led a 14-play, 86-yard touchdown drive.
That begs questions: If Rudolph has the edge, can Dobbs change the Steelers’ coaches’ minds? Would the Steelers be willing to trade whichever quarterback doesn’t win the backup job?
Dobbs and Rudolph are doing their best to ignore such speculation, especially in light of Andrew Luck’s retirement. That could have teams like the Indianapolis Colts in the market for a backup quarterback before the NFL regular season starts.
“Those two are valuable as heck right now,” Foster said. “That’s how I look at it. … Teams want that type of guy, because they can be starters on other teams.”
Added Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey: “You can’t shut that type of noise out. That type of noise comes with the business, especially when you’re a backup player. If you’re a starter here, trade talk might affect you because you want people to be real with you. For them, it would be a blessing come true, right?”
That’s true, but the Steelers would be better served by keeping both Dobbs and Rudolph. They should treat their depth as an insurance policy in case of an injury to Roethlisberger, not as an unnecessary luxury that could merit a meager return.
Dobbs already dealt with trade rumors last summer, as the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Dobbs had “garnered interest” from teams seeking a backup. Rudolph was unaware that he could be considered a trade target.
“I hadn’t heard it yet, so it’s not hard at all,” Rudolph said. “There’s a million different scenarios that could happen. I could be cut tomorrow. I could be traded anywhere. I can’t worry about that. I’m just worried about going to Charlotte and playing well in our last game and being productive. I’ll put my best foot forward and let the chips fall where they may.”
Dobbs is doing the same, preparing like a starter to become Big Ben’s backup and hoping he can deliver a dynamic encore. Either way, the final audition promises to be nothing short of sensational.
Get your popcorn ready.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .