When Mason Rudolph recalled the Earl Thomas hit that knocked him unconscious against the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback called it a “freak thing.”
“Shut me off real quick, and it was the sweet spot,” Rudolph said, speaking publicly Monday for the first time about the helmet shot to his jaw. “Shut me out black.”
#Steelers QB Mason Rudolph has been cleared and is no longer in concussion protocol.
This hit from Earl Thomas on Week 5 was the reason Rudolph was concussed. He ultimately only missed 1 start.pic.twitter.com/PgJZZbhXhD
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 16, 2019
When James Washington watched the hit that left Rudolph concussed, it produced a flashback for the Steelers wide receiver to their days as teammates at Oklahoma State in October 2016.
“The same deal kind of happened to me in college, so we’ve both been knocked out pretty good,” Washington said. “It was just one of those freak accident deals. You walk over there, and your buddy is laying there. You’re just in shock.”
That’s why Washington had a harder time talking about watching the replay than Rudolph did. It brings back bad memories of the time Washington got knocked unconscious for nearly two minutes in a game against Texas.
Washington caught a pass from Rudolph and was fighting for extra yards when Texas cornerback Davante Davis wrapped him around the waist and spun him around twice, right into a shoulder-to-helmet collision with linebacker Malcolm Roach.
— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) October 1, 2016
Washington claims he was unconscious for 1 minute, 45 seconds. Some of the other details are fuzzy, leaving a lapse in memory for Rudolph and Washington.
Like Rudolph, Washington eventually got up and walked off the field. Unlike Rudolph, who wasn’t cleared by specialists to play at the Los Angeles Chargers, Washington returned from his concussion to play the next week against Iowa State.
Washington played a starring role in that game, with eight catches for 152 yards and two touchdowns, including a 3-yarder to clinch a 38-31 comeback victory. But that’s not what he remembers most about the Iowa State game.
“I caught a slant, and the safety came in aiming for my head — I know he was — so I caught it and slid and he went right over my head,” Washington said. “I was like, ‘These guys are trying to get me again.’ You’re playing and thinking about it.
“But I caught a few deep balls from Mason, and we got rolling and, all of a sudden, the thought was gone. … I think it’s going to take a few plays (for Rudolph). You can’t get hurt and not think about it the next week. But that’s football.”
In football, Washington adds, it’s part of the job description.
Rudolph has no memory of the play against the Ravens that knocked him out before he hit the ground and left him lying motionless on the turf at Heinz Field. He recalls everything before and after but had to ask Steelers coaches what play they called. That’s almost as scary as the shot he absorbed.
And that’s a shame, as it might have been the best play Rudolph has made as a Steelers quarterback, one where Washington was also on the receiving end of his throw.
It was a third-and-11 at the Steelers 12 at 8:17 of the third quarter when he sensed pressure and escaped the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield while rolling to his left. Rudolph unleashed a 26-yard pass to Washington, with the roughing-the-passer penalty on Thomas making it a 41-yard gain.
Washington injured his shoulder a few plays later, and they both missed the Steelers game at the Los Angeles Chargers. Washington only can imagine how hard it was for Rudolph to stand on the sidelines at Dignity Health Sports Park and watch Devlin “Duck” Hodges play quarterback for the Steelers, given Washington likened staying home to being grounded.
It was the most beneficial thing that could have happened, both for Rudolph and the Steelers. That the Chargers game was followed by a bye week gave him time to recover. The Steelers proved they were capable of winning with a third-string quarterback, as it forced them to run a balanced offense.
But Rudolph was making strides against the Ravens. He had completed his first nine passes, connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster for 35 yards and Washington for 21 on the Steelers’ first touchdown drive and had just thrown a first-down pass.
“It’s crazy how it works out like that,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. “Whenever you see that type of stuff, it’s encouraging because you feel like you see the growth in the offense. … He was really settling in.”
The Steelers were encouraged to see Rudolph recover so quickly without any setbacks. Pouncey mentioned seeing Rudolph reminded him of Ryan Shazier’s spinal-cord injury at Cincinnati. So Rudolph’s return is motivational.
But you’ve got to wonder if it was just a freak injury or one that will be in the back of Rudolph’s mind every time he rolls out with defenders in pursuit, searching for his sweet spot.
“You can’t play looking over your shoulder making sure you’re not going to get blindsided,” Rudolph said. “I’m not going to think twice about worrying about getting hit in the right spot. That’s just the luck of the draw.”
The Steelers have to hope Rudolph can shut off the thought of getting shut out black and make more memorable plays like the one against the Ravens that he can’t remember.