Steelers’ Mason Rudolph: ‘I could have been a little more aggressive’ against 49ers
Until Mason Rudolph threw a 76-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 39-yard score to Diontae Johnson in the second half, the Pittsburgh Steelers scheme last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers was more generic than a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
Passes consisted of screens, quick outs and short crossing routes. The longest play through the first 40 minutes was a 10-yard gain by tight end Vance McDonald. Of Rudolph’s 14 completions overall, only the two touchdowns were on passes thrown more than 1 yard beyond the line of scrimmage.
It gave the appearance of a dumbed-downed, conservative gameplan drawn up for a second-year quarterback making his first NFL start.
But offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner insisted Friday the Steelers didn’t intentionally prohibit the record-setting passer from Oklahoma State from stretching the field with deep passes.
“We had some opportunity. We had some throws for shots,” Fichtner said. “If you don’t connect or throw them, it never really materializes.”
It didn’t materialize for the Steelers until the second half when they scored their only touchdowns in a 24-20 loss. Fichtner said the plan was to have Rudolph throw deep passes much earlier in the game.
“We were able to go down the field early,” he said. “You’ve got to throw them. You’ve got to throw it. You’ve got to attempt to throw it there.”
The reliance on a short passing game was counter to what Rudolph experienced at Oklahoma State, where he set 54 school records and left school with the fourth-most passing yards in Big 12 history. As a senior, he was one of the top three quarterbacks nationally in passing yards per completion.
“Whether he’s hesitant or didn’t feel comfortable or didn’t like the matchup enough, that all goes into play,” Fichtner said. “It could have been the protection. … I’m not second-guessing Mason at all. We’re going to try to be aggressive as we can be from start to finish.”
Rudolph also expected better results from his first NFL start. He completed just 51.9% of his attempts for 174 yards. In the first half, he was 8 of 15 for 40 yards for a 59.0 quarterback rating.
“The first drives I could have been a little more aggressive,” Rudolph said. “I’m an aggressive person. That’s who I’ve always been at the quarterback position. It’s a little unlike me, but it’s mistakes you always look forward to cleaning up, and I think we already have this week.”
Perhaps the aggressiveness will return Monday night when the Steelers try to snap an 0-3 start against the Cincinnati Bengals, another winless team. Unlike his debut, Rudolph will have the benefit of playing at Heinz Field, where he made his NFL debut two weeks ago when he played the second half against the Seattle Seahawks.
“It’s my second week going through the whole process with the guys, the O-line, getting valuable reps,” Rudolph said. “The meeting time, it’s my deal. It’s more focused around what I like to do, preparation, game-planning. Randy has been great at giving me opportunities to provide input and what I like, and that’s really helpful.”
The Steelers hope to avoid a repeat of Sunday’s loss when the 49ers often put eight defenders in the box to stop the run, leaving the wide receivers in single coverage.
It wasn’t until Smith-Schuster broke free on his 76-yard catch-and-run, and the 39-yard touchdown pass to Johnson, which followed a 32-yard pass interference call on a deep toss to James Washington, that the Steelers passing game got some respect from the 49ers.
“I think you’re taking what the defense gives you,” Rudolph said. “I do love pushing the ball down the field and chunk plays, as Coach Tomlin says, eliminates a lot of execution. We enjoy taking those chunk plays, but at the same time if it’s not there, you have to be smart with the ball, check it down and not force it into those tight windows.”
The margin of error won’t be as thin against the Bengals, who have the 27th-ranked defense in the NFL. The Bengals have allowed more rushing yards per game than all but the Miami Dolphins, and any emphasis on trying to stop the run could free up Rudolph to be more aggressive.
“What I see is a talented quarterback who is accurate, and they still call the game to put the offense in the best shape possible,” Bengals first-year coach Zac Taylor said Friday. “They have a gameplan that keeps you on your heels. … They will be able to put that kid in the best position to make plays.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .