Mark Madden: Steelers must hope defense makes QB pick insignificant
Mike Tomlin has not committed to a starting quarterback for this week’s home game against Cleveland.
Mason Rudolph stunk out the joint before being pulled in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 16-10 win Sunday at Cincinnati. Devlin Hodges wasn’t much better, manufacturing a big play thanks to a James Washington stiff-arm, not his own brilliance.
Rudolph was 8 of 16 for 85 yards and one interception. Take away the 79-yard touchdown to Washington, and Hodges was 4 of 10 for 39 yards.
Who starts at QB doesn’t matter. Both choices are lousy.
Between Myles Garrett’s accusations of racism, two horrific performances and a demeanor that suggests he is permanently rattled, the last two weeks have damaged Rudolph’s career badly and perhaps for keeps.
Hodges has zero pedigree, but he’s cool as Freon compared to Rudolph. That factor alone makes him the logical pick.
But Rudolph and Hodges both stink. General manager Kevin Colbert better renew the search for Ben Roethlisberger’s long-term replacement because neither is it.
If the Steelers are lucky, quarterback will be a nonfactor the remainder of the season. Do the bare minimum. Just don’t lose the game. (They won’t be that lucky.)
The defense determined the result in the last two games and will continue to do so.
Against Cleveland, Browns QB Baker Mayfield expertly managed the ball and the pocket. The Steelers got one sack and zero takeaways. Cleveland won easily.
Against Cincinnati, Bengals QB Ryan Finley was even worse than his Steelers counterparts. The Steelers got four sacks and two takeaways. The Steelers won (barely).
The Steelers defense has to be better than the Steelers offense is bad. If the offense stinks — and it will — the defense has to undo that damage and then some. The wording is complicated. The premise isn’t.
It was always going to be that way once Roethlisberger got hurt. Injuries have exacerbated.
But when JuJu Smith-Schuster returns, how much does it really help? Neither Rudolph nor Hodges can get Smith-Schuster the ball, and he hasn’t yet established himself as a No. 1 receiver. Too many drops, can’t get separation against top cornerbacks.
When James Conner returns, how long until he’s hurt again? (“Benny Snell football” got things done at Cincinnati. But the Bengals have the NFL’s worst rushing defense.)
Tomlin can’t be blamed for how he has managed his quarterbacks. He can’t forcefeed stability to a sketchy situation. If changing QBs occasionally — or frequently — can mine a sporadic run of decent play by one or the other, it’s worth a try. (But it won’t always work.)
Heck, it’s legitimate to wonder if practice-squad quarterback Paxton Lynch could do a better job than Rudolph or Hodges. Lynch was a first-round pick by Denver in 2016.
There is little doubt Colin Kaepernick would outperform Rudolph and Hodges. But that was never in the cards, for reasons obvious and understandable.
Perhaps safety Minkah Fitzpatrick could play quarterback. He can do just about everything else. His fumble recovery and tightrope walk to stay in bounds was the defining moment of the victory at Cincinnati.
Rookie linebacker Devin Bush made the strip. Fitzpatrick got the ball. Very apropos, as those two have been the difference-makers for that defense. (Though how Bush got in single coverage against wide receiver Tyler Boyd on that play is a mystery.)
Fitzpatrick has been in on eight turnovers this year, Bush seven.
Each must get to double digits quickly if the Steelers are to make the playoffs.
Who starts at quarterback vs. Cleveland? Here’s betting Tomlin doesn’t know now. And here’s betting the Browns win handily.