Mark Madden: Time for Steelers to expand game plan for Mason Rudolph |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Time for Steelers to expand game plan for Mason Rudolph

Mark Madden
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph throw on the run against the Bengals Monday, Sept. 30, 2019 at Heinz Field.

I’ve been told all week via Twitter that throwing the ball an average distance of three-and-a-half yards doesn’t translate to a popgun offense.

In fact, I’m told it equates to Tom Brady’s offense with New England, or the Steelers’ offense during Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season in 2004.

Those Steelers went 15-1. The current Patriots are defending Super Bowl champions.

If true, those comparisons bode well.

Barring such sketchy parallels panning out — quarterback Mason Rudolph isn’t much of anywhere yet, let alone there — there’s plenty of trickledown to be mooted when it comes to the Steelers’ offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are decoys: Smith-Schuster had three catches for 15 yards Monday night vs. Cincinnati. Washington caught zero balls.

The running backs are receivers. James Conner and Jaylen Samuels did a good job of that Monday night: 16 catches between them for 140 yards and a touchdown. Their yards after catch made Rudolph’s stat line.

What a stat line it was: 24 for 28, 229 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

I’m not sure how it happened. Except for Rudolph’s 43-yard TD pass to Diontae Johnson, I barely remember him throwing the ball.

Samuels completed all three of his pass attempts in the wildcat offense, gaining 31 yards. It was that kind of game, and the Bengals are that kind of terrible.

The Steelers’ next foe is Baltimore Sunday at Heinz Field.

Nobody’s sure what kind of team the Ravens are.

Baltimore opened the season by beating Miami and Arizona. Those teams are winless.

After that, the Ravens lost to Kansas City and Cleveland — two good teams, to be sure, but in the process the Ravens surrendered 73 points and 1,033 yards.

Those are absolutely amazing figures. The Ravens’ defensive backfield is supposed to be among the NFL’s best, but 711 of those yards came through the air.

Baltimore’s offense ranks first overall, first in rushing, sixth in passing and second in points. The Ravens got 28 points against the Chiefs, 25 vs. the Browns. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is off to a respectable beginning in his first full season as a starter, and has 238 rushing yards (6.6-yard average). Running back Mark Ingram has 328 rushing yards (6.0-yard average).

Will the real Ravens please stand up?

Baltimore seems certain to score points, anyway. If they do, the Steelers might have to take the training wheels off Rudolph. But they barely did that in the losses to Seattle and San Francisco, not even when they trailed.

Like Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports said, “Teams tell you what they think about their quarterbacks by the game plan.”

The Steelers must lengthen Rudolph’s game plan. You don’t beat good teams 31/2 yards at a time. The NFL isn’t that kind of league. Smith-Schuster can’t be put on the pay-no-mind list indefinitely. Bad for his branding.

But Rudolph has played 10 quarters. Not much has been added besides the wildcat, and that barely involves Rudolph. The wildcat is a novelty, not a mainstay.

Rudolph can progress only so much organically. But perhaps the Steelers have Rudolph pegged as a generic game manager. He’s a mere third-round pick, after all.

Oh, that’s right: Brady was a sixth-round pick. So Rudolph should do a lot better, even if it is 31/2 yards at a time.

I’m trying to convince myself the Steelers will beat Baltimore. That’s a work in progress. The Ravens aren’t the Bengals. A kindergarten offense won’t beat them.

Rudolph will doubtless evolve. But when? At 1-3, the Steelers must force-feed.

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