Mark Madden: Steelers coaches live in their fears with game plan | TribLIVE.com
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Steelers coaches live in their fears with game plan

Mark Madden
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AP
Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph passes as he is pressured by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead during the second half Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019.

It’s difficult to blood a second-year quarterback into starting duties, especially when it wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

Mason Rudolph isn’t proceeding on the expected timetable. Rudolph is deputizing for future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger because of the latter’s season-ending injury.

Rudolph is a third-round pick. It was hoped he wouldn’t have to assume the Steelers’ QB job until Roethlisberger’s contract expires after the 2021 season.

It always was going to be hard when Rudolph assumed the helm. He’s done nothing in his six quarters of NFL football to make anyone believe he can’t grow into the job. The Steelers’ gameplan, understandably, is designed to protect him.

But there’s a fine line between protecting Rudolph and living in your fears. We saw that Sunday at San Francisco, and it helped cost the Steelers the game.

The Steelers got two first-quarter turnovers in 49ers territory. Conventional wisdom says you take a shot at the end zone while the other team is reeling.

The Steelers didn’t.

After T.J. Watt’s interception gave the Steelers the ball on San Francisco’s 33 after just 73 seconds, Rudolph threw three short passes that netted 5 yards. The Steelers played it safe to make sure of getting a field goal.

They did. But winning in today’s NFL isn’t about scoring three points at a time.

Then, Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception put the Steelers on the 49ers’ 24 after 10:16 was played. Same thing: three short passes, a run, a scramble and a field goal.

If Roethlisberger is playing, the Steelers lead 14-0 or 10-0 after that sequence.

It’s the first quarter. You’ve got to take shots. Have faith in Rudolph, because right now you’ve got no choice. Rudolph didn’t look scared. He seemed anything but.

But the coaches were scared on his behalf, and that did damage.

The Steelers led 6-0 after one quarter. They got two more turnovers in the second quarter but led just 6-3 at halftime. They finished with five takeaways but lost 24-20. The 49ers got two takeaways, converting theirs into 14 points.

How the heck do you get five takeaways and throw touchdown passes of 76 and 39 yards but still lose the game? (Even stranger, Rudolph’s only two completions beyond the line of scrimmage were those TD throws.)

The Steelers defense mostly got shredded, allowing 436 total yards. Fitzpatrick showed a nose for the ball, but the prior problems remain.

Too many good players aren’t playing well enough: Joe Haden and Cameron Heyward are disappointing. The inexperience of Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds is understandable but frustrating. Mark Barron was eviscerated on San Francisco’s winning drive. Bud Dupree’s contribution was minimal despite lining up against a rookie left tackle making his first NFL start. (Has Dupree forgotten he’s playing for a contract?)

Same goes on offense, where the heralded offensive line continues to struggle. Both tackles spin like revolving doors. JuJu Smith-Schuster was on the receiving end of a 76-yard catch-and-run touchdown but was mostly invisible, grabbing just two other balls for 5 yards. James Conner got just 43 yards on 13 carries and had a soul-crushing fourth-quarter fumble that led to San Francisco’s winning touchdown.

Conner’s rushing totals are partly excused by the Steelers too often lining up in the shotgun and giving him sidecar handoffs which see him get the ball flat-footed and rob him of his power. But there’s no absolving Conner for his crucial cough-up.

Stupid idiots like me crowed about “addition by subtraction” when Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown hit the bricks, and it’s still good they’re gone (as witnessed by Bell’s mini-meltdown and Brown’s major insanity on Twitter yesterday).

But Conner and Smith-Schuster have to step up to make those departures palatable. Conner did last year but not so far this season. Smith-Schuster has made two big plays in three games but otherwise has disappeared. (He did yell, “Get me the (bleeping) ball” after his TD reception. He’ll be a No. 1 receiver in no time.)

That said, Bell and Brown don’t win that game at San Francisco without Roethlisberger. He made them. That’s apparent now and only will become more so.

This season is going down the drain at a rate that could make that deal for Fitzpatrick a disaster unless Fitzpatrick puts a bunch of All-Pro campaigns together. Miami bet on the Steelers imploding when they picked their trade partner for Fitzpatrick. What if that swap nets the Dolphins a top-five pick?

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