Mark Madden: Complementary players must step up for Steelers offense to succeed | TribLIVE.com
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Complementary players must step up for Steelers offense to succeed

Mark Madden
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AP
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James Washington runs a pass route against the New England Patriots in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass.

“When in doubt, write about the quarterback.” A wise, old sportswriter said that.

The Steelers quarterback situation is obviously in major flux. Between that and the acquisition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, other headaches are lost in the shuffle.

Like James Conner’s pathetic 2.6-yard rushing average. JuJu Smith-Schuster not yet blossoming into a No. 1 receiver. The vaunted offensive line underperforming. A defense that looks badly confused and can’t tackle. Even uber-reliable Cam Heyward is subpar.

The list of Steelers inadequacies is endless right now. Their problems are great, and they are many.

How the Steelers’ game plan for San Francisco features quarterback Mason Rudolph will be intriguing.

The instinct is to simplify the game plan and run the ball. But Conner not only stinks currently, he’s nursing a bum knee. Jaylen Samuels (five carries on the year) isn’t seen as a workhouse despite his 4.4-yard average. How long before rookie Benny Snell becomes the people’s choice with his one carry for 23 yards? (That’s quite an average.)

But San Francisco’s biggest vulnerability on defense is its secondary, one of the NFL’s worst: It was ranked 31st in Sports Illustrated’s NFL preseason issue. The Niners’ front seven is respectable, if banged up.

Don’t live in your fears, as it’s been said.

The acquisition of Fitzpatrick suggests the Steelers believe their season can be saved, and that they trust Mason Rudolph to help do that. The offense will become more schematic with Rudolph. Less iso routes, more crossing patterns. Let Rudolph go after San Francisco’s weakness.

Let James Washington help him.

The two hooked up frequently during four seasons together at Oklahoma State. Donte Moncrief is a granite-handed bust. Nail him to the bench. Use Washington liberally. Big 12 success doesn’t necessarily translate to NFL success. But the comfort and confidence Rudolph and Washington would provide each other can’t help but translate into something good.

Use rookie Diontae Johnson more, too. Forget Ryan Switzer ever existed.

When your star QB is out and you have zilch to lose, that’s the time to move forward with something different. You’re trying to win now, but it’s OK if you also learn about the future. You know all you need to about Moncrief and Switzer.

You need more from Conner and Smith-Schuster. Without Ben Roethslisberger, the Steelers will learn a lot about those two, also.

Conner and Smith-Schuster just aren’t adequate right now. Conner is tiptoeing and missing holes. Smith-Schuster disappears for quarters at a time.

Losing Roethlisberger makes things difficult on the entire team, but especially at the skill positions. The exit of Antonio Brown will ultimately be a blessing, but makes it hard for Smith-Schuster right now.

But if Conner and Smith-Schuster can’t step up and do better, then all they are is complementary players. The Steelers ditched Le’Veon Bell and Brown based partly on expectations for Conner and Smith. Those expectations aren’t being met. If that continues, the Steelers have no Plan B.

It’s a time of turmoil for the Steelers, with much uncertainty.

But one thing seems definite: The Steelers won’t sign Colin Kaepernick to be backup QB.

Steelers fan Snoop Dogg floated that idea, picking up where Jay-Z sold out. But it’s gained zero momentum away from Twitter. Why would the Steelers want to ignite an explosion of bad PR to roster a backup quarterback who hasn’t played since 2016?

True, the owner’s late father used to work for then-President Barack Obama. But Dan Rooney wouldn’t have signed Kaepernick. It’s not what’s best for business. (Dan Rooney wouldn’t have traded a first-round pick, either. He never did.)

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