Kevin Gorman: Steelers ready for Mason Rudolph to make big plays vs. Ravens
James Washington recognized the look on Mason Rudolph’s face on “Monday Night Football,” when he saw the sly smile and electric eyes after a 43-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson.
Washington has been on the receiving end of passes — and that look — from Rudolph at Oklahoma State and with the Pittsburgh Steelers, so he expects the second-year quarterback to eventually become the cocksure passer he was in college.
“He’s just got to have confidence in himself,” Washington said. “Once he connects on a downfield bomb or gets a guy in the end zone, you can see the excitement and emotions and everything. We’ve got to keep him playing like that all night long. If we have him playing with excitement, we’ll be just fine. When he’s happy, everybody’s happy.”
What should make Rudolph happy is a statistic that speaks of how unrecognizable this Baltimore Ravens defense has become after ranking first in the NFL last season: They have allowed 500-plus yards each of the past two games and four pass plays of 50 yards or more this season, the most in the league.
Big plays are a big problem for Baltimore.
“We’ve had numerous big plays against us that are really not part of who we believe we are,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, “and we’ve got to get those things cleaned up.”
If you expect Rudolph to admit he’s excited about the prospect of making splash plays against the Ravens on Sunday at Heinz Field, he’s not going to give any satisfaction.
“Well,” Rudolph said, “that’s the plan every week.”
For the Steelers, the gameplan has changed on a weekly basis since Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season to elbow surgery in Week 2. The Steelers know they have to take the kid gloves off Rudolph sooner or later, and the Ravens appear to be the perfect opponent to allow him that opportunity.
That’s the question: Can Rudolph take advantage?
“I believe so,” Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “We’ve made some big plays. We’d like to make more. We’re hunting more all the time, but it all comes down to really being together, a group effort.”
Baltimore’s defense is different, after cutting safety Eric Weddle and allowing linebacker C.J. Mosley to sign with the N.Y. Jets in free agency. The Ravens are playing without cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee) and nickel cornerback Tavon Young, who was lost to a season-ending neck injury.
“They’re definitely missing some of the key guys that they had last year, but the guys that they have now can make the plays,” Washington said. “It all comes down to us executing.”
That’s a team effort, but it ultimately falls on Rudolph. Where Rudolph looked to be handcuffed in his first start, at San Francisco, Fichtner put the onus on his young QB to look downfield and get rid of the ball quicker.
Mike Tomlin acknowledged the Steelers used the wildcat formation against Cincinnati to “take a few snaps off of the game” in an effort to take pressure off Rudolph, especially without injured tight end Vance McDonald and fullback Roosevelt Nix to provide help in pass protection.
Rudolph believes the Steelers took advantage of the Bengals’ scheme, that by forcing them to stop short flip passes and runs out of the wildcat it opened up deep throws in the second half.
The Ravens have been susceptible to big plays through the first four games. They gave up a 54-yarder to Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, an 83-yarder to Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman, a 59-yarder to Cleveland tight end Ricky Seals-Jones and a 65-yarder to Jarvis Landry, who would have gone 87 yards for a touchdown if he hadn’t tripped over himself.
The Steelers only have one play of 50 yards or more this season, when JuJu Smith-Schuster turned a crossing route into a 76-yard touchdown against the 49ers. No wonder Fichtner would like to see the Steelers make more plays of the catch-and-run variety.
“We always talk about ‘catch short, run long,’ ” Fichtner said. “We’ve got to break tackles. We’ve got to make guys miss. That’s the way this league is. We call (them) playmakers. Playmakers got to make plays.”
The Steelers need Rudolph to find the playmakers. That starts with Johnson and Washington, who both have receptions of 40-plus yards this season. It should include Donte Moncrief and Johnny Holton, veterans with stretch-the-field speed.
But it comes down to Rudolph’s confidence to challenge the Ravens and get the Steelers’ playmakers to make plays.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Washington said. “We can stretch the ball down the field, get guys open and make some explosive splash plays, get the defense excited and keeping them off the field. Running up the score is what we’re hoping.”
The Steelers should be happy with Rudolph being happy.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .