Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: In battle of backup QBs, Steelers see some separation
All eyes were on the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks in their preseason game Sunday night at the Tennessee Titans, and not just because Ben Roethlisberger made his debut.
Andrew Luck’s retirement rocked the NFL, turning the Indianapolis Colts into a team desperate for quarterback depth. The Steelers have a surplus at the position, with a pair of former draft picks battling for the No. 2 quarterback job.
Where it was just a dress rehearsal for Roethlisberger, it was more of an open audition for Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph. One is going to be Big Ben’s backup quarterback. The other could become trade bait if the Steelers are so inclined.
All three had their moments in the Steelers’ 18-6 victory over the Titans.
Ben and JuJulook to be in mid-season form!
Dime for 6️⃣!#PITvsTEN
— PFF (@PFF) August 26, 2019
1. Opening act: Roethlisberger got the start, and the Steelers got the opening possession, so he wasted no time testing out his newest toy.
Roethlisberger threw to Donte Moncrief on back-to-back downs for gains of 4 and 7 yards, the latter for a first down. But another favorite target, tight end Vance McDonald, dropped a third-down pass thrown into tight coverage.
The second possession involved another third-down incompletion to force a punt, but Roethlisberger made the most of his third chance. He hit JuJu Smith-Schuster on a perfectly placed pass in the back of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown to cap a nine-play, 58-yard scoring drive.
“We moved the ball pretty fast,” Smith-Schuster told NBC’s Michelle Tafoya. “The chemistry is there.”
In 19 snaps, Roethlisberger completed 8 of 13 passes for 63 yards and a score. That was all the Steelers needed to see.
Mason Rudolph and James Washington have that connection down!
— NFL (@NFL) August 26, 2019
2. Taking his shot: Rudolph wasted little time to show he is worthy of the second-string job, needing only 45 seconds to put the ball in the end zone.
Rudolph’s first pass was picture perfect, as he dropped a deep ball over James Washington’s shoulder in the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown and 15-0 lead.
It was the kind of pass that proved Rudolph has made great strides since his rookie season. It doesn’t hurt that he has a history with Washington, his teammate at Oklahoma State, or that the second-year receiver has 40-plus-yard catches in each of the first three preseason games.
But opponents also are aware of their connection, and Rudolph was intercepted on another deep pass intended for Washington. That’s the blemish on his performance.
Rudolph finished 6 of 9 for 75 yards but wasn’t able to maintain the momentum from his strong start. The question is whether he did enough to move past Dobbs. The Steelers certainly hope so, considering they gave Rudolph a first-round draft grade and invested a third-round pick in him.
Josh Dobbs could be a name of interest for the Colts QB2 gig if Mason Rudolph does, in fact, win the backup job in Pittsburgh
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) August 26, 2019
3. Flashing footwork: If Dobbs has an edge, it’s with his ability to escape pocket pressure and make plays with his feet. If he has a weakness, it is his accuracy.
Dobbs showed he can combine footwork and accuracy in the same play, even if both plays initially were ruled incomplete.
The first came when he rolled right and found Johnny Holton for a perfect back-shoulder throw near the home sideline. Holton, however, was called for offensive pass interference.
The second came after the pocket collapsed and Dobbs ran a bootleg to escape. Circling right and rolling to his left, he found receiver Trey Griffey near the visiting sideline.
Officials called it incomplete, but the Steelers challenged the call and video review showed that Griffey got both feet down for a 23-yard gain to the Tennessee 15.
So, of course, Dobbs overthrew 6-foot-8 tight end Zach Gentry on the next play and threw incomplete on third down, forcing the Steelers to settle for a field goal.
In the fourth quarter, Dobbs rolled left and threw a pass that tipped off Gentry’s hands and was intercepted. It was Dobbs’ second red-zone interception in the past two games, a bad sign for a quarterback trying to keep his backup job.
— NFL (@NFL) August 26, 2019
4. Looking strong: Those watching only the quarterbacks might have missed the best performances of the first half, as James Conner ran strong behind a dominant line.
Conner looked explosive almost every time he touched the ball, as he had five carries for 41 yards — an 8.2 average — and two catches for 15 yards.
Then again, the starting offensive line opened big holes for Conner and Jaylen Samuels and kept all three quarterbacks from getting sacked in the first half.
The strength of the Steelers starts up front, with Pro Bowl players in left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro. But left guard Ramon Foster is super steady, and right tackle Matt Feiler is making no one miss Marcus Gilbert.
— NFL (@NFL) August 26, 2019
5. Quick hits: Stephon Tuitt was a force early, following a 4-yard sack of Titans starter Marcus Mariota for a safety with a sack of backup Ryan Tannehill. On the opposite end, Cameron Heyward had four tackles and a sack as the duo showed they could be dominant when healthy. … Jordan Berry showed why he’s the frontrunner at punter, dropping a 49-yarder to the Tennessee 4 to set up Tuitt’s safety. … Trey Edmunds, older brother of Steelers safety Terrell, took advantage of the absence of fourth-round pick Benny Snell in a short-yardage situation by running for a 3-yard gain on third-and-1 at the 20 one play before Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass to Smith-Schuster.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) August 26, 2019
Diontae Spencer took advantage of third-rounder Diontae Johnson’s absence, breaking an end-around for a 29-yard gain. … And outside linebacker Tuzar Skipper made the most of his opportunity with four tackles and forcing a fumble with a strip-sack on Titans quarterback Logan Woodside, a former teammate at Toledo. … Safety Marcus Allen had a much-needed big game, with an open-field tackle to prevent a first down and a forced fumble.
The Steelers face a short turnaround for their preseason finale Thursday at Carolina, a game that should go a long way in deciding who will be Big Ben’s backup.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .