When Ben Roethlisberger left Sunday’s game against Seattle with an elbow injury, Randy Fichtner didn’t blink. The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator immediately turned to Mason Rudolph and asked the backup quarterback for his favorite plays so he knew what to call in the second half.
Never mind that Rudolph never had taken a snap in an NFL regular-season game. Fichtner knew the level of preparation Rudolph puts in and showed confidence by calling two pass plays in his first offensive series.
Plus, in his 13 years coaching with the Steelers, Fichtner knew that Big Ben had a habit of racing to the rescue.
“He’s gone down before. A lot of times, you pull the cape off, and he’s back,” Fichtner said. “You just assumed that’s the way it’s going to be, and that’s the way you approach it. But when it was known at least in-game that he wasn’t going to be back, there was no time to blink.”
Now that Roethlisberger will require surgery and has been ruled out for the remainder of the season, the focus will be on Fichtner to figure out how to save the Steelers’ offense.
No longer is Fichtner calling plays for a 16th-year veteran and future Hall of Famer with two Super Bowl rings but a second-year signal caller who has played one half of an NFL regular-season game and will make his first career start Sunday at the San Francisco 49ers.
That the backup quarterback is an undrafted free agent from Samford who was signed after a tryout and promoted from the practice squad after Roethlisberger’s injury doesn’t help. When asked about Devlin Hodges being an injury away, Fichtner let out a deep breath and allowed the question to be his answer.
No pressure, Coach Randy.
“You don’t put it all on one (set of) shoulders,” Fichtner said, “but it wasn’t all on Ben’s shoulders, either.”
Maybe not, but Roethlisberger was the centerpiece of the Steelers for the past 15 seasons and led the league in attempts, completions, passing yards (and interceptions) last season. It’s on Fichtner to balance the offense so that Rudolph doesn’t have to carry the Steelers the way Roethlisberger did.
That’s why Fichtner has been in Rudolph’s ear all week, trying to take the pressure off the 2018 third-round draft pick and help him adjust to an elevated role. They have the benefit of working together in the preseason, but this week has been about getting the gameplan down for the first time as the starter.
“It’s the only voice he knows so far,” Fichtner said. “Hopefully, it’s comforting to him.”
Fichtner demands more out of his backup quarterback than his starter, making Rudolph attend more meetings to make up for getting less repetitions in practice, and cracked that he has to work harder on jokes because Rudolph takes everything so seriously.
“Sometimes,” Fichtner said, “he probably gets tired of hearing my voice.”
Rudolph made it clear Thursday that he will be taking orders from Fichtner, not playing the backyard football that made Big Ben so dangerous in the no-huddle offense.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m going to do what’s asked of me,” Rudolph said. “There are some areas and some checks where I can have a bit of freedom, but it’s not going to be the freedom (Roethlisberger) has, not even close. And I don’t want it to be that way. I want it to be controlled by Randy, and I want to execute the plays that are called.”
If you’re looking for a positive sign, Fichtner showed some trust in Rudolph against Seattle. After his second pass bounced off Donte Moncrief’s hands and into those of strong safety Bradley McDougald, it led to the Seahawks scoring the go-ahead touchdown for a 14-10 lead. On the next series, Fichtner dialed up a play that the Steelers had practiced more than a dozen times — without Rudolph ever taking a rep.
The Steelers ran a flea-flicker that saw Rudolph hand off to James Conner, who flipped the ball back so Rudolph could throw deep to a streaking JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 45-yard gain. Rudolph’s first career completion was the longest play of the game, setting the stage for a solid debut: Rudolph finished 12 for 19 for 112 yards with two touchdowns and a 92.4 passer rating in the 28-26 loss. Roethlisberger was 8 of 15 for 75 yards (67.4) in the first half.
Fichtner had mixed emotions: sad that the Steelers lost to the Seahawks and that they lost Roethlisberger for the season but optimistic that Rudolph was ready. Is Fichtner? With the Steelers 0-2 and breaking in a new starting quarterback, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on their play-caller.
No wonder Fichtner went right back to work.
“That’s just the way it is. I’m sorry, but you’ve got to go,” Fichtner said, acknowledging that it won’t be the same working without the franchise quarterback. “There’s no doubt, and I’m not trying to diminish that, but Ben knows and I’ve talked to him about it. That’s the only approach that I have. I have that approach because I owe it to the rest of the group to lead in that type of role. Whatever maybe leadership you know he was giving the group, you know if they’re looking for it and don’t find it in anyone else, they’ve got to find it in me.”
Fichtner is focused on saving the Steelers’ season.
And he knows there’s no time to blink.