Steelers QB Mason Rudolph says connection with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington ‘just a matter of time’
After leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to his first win as an NFL quarterback on Monday night, quarterback Mason Rudolph apologized for not throwing the ball enough to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Smith-Schuster finished with three catches for 15 yards in the 27-3 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals. It was the fewest receiving yards the third-year receiver had in game since he was held without a catch in his NFL debut in September 2017.
No similar public regrets were shared about Rudolph’s former college teammate James Washington, who was targeted once and didn’t have a catch against Cincinnati, conjuring memories of his rookie season when he had zero catches in six games.
For a duo that set numerous offensive records at Oklahoma State, Rudolph and Washington not connecting for a single completion was unexpected.
“It’s just kind of happened that way,” Rudolph said Thursday. “Different people step up. … It’s just a matter of time before you get the right look, and you get connected.”
The connection hasn’t materialized for Rudolph and Washington through two-and-a-half games and 10 quarters of football. Washington has caught three passes for 25 yards since Rudolph replaced Ben Roethlisberger at halftime of Week 2 against Seattle, although he did draw a 39-yard pass interference penalty against San Francisco.
“There’s no particular reason, and I’m not surprised,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “When it comes, it comes. They have hooked up. They just haven’t hooked up as maybe as much as we’d like them too.”
The same could be said — at least in the Bengals game — for Smith-Schuster, who did not have a catch in the second half when the Steelers turned a 10-3 lead into a 24-point victory. Fichtner attributed Smith-Schuster’s inactivity to a toe injury that kept the Pro Bowl receiver out of practice Wednesday and Thursday.
“He gutted it out, and I was really proud of him,” Fichtner said.
Fichtner expects Smith-Schuster to play Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens visit Heinz Field. Rudolph would like to take advantage, too.
“Got to get the ball to your best players, and that’s something you look forward to every week in the gameplan, so it’s just an emphasis on my end,” Rudolph said. “JuJu is a team player, and there’s going to be games like that where they might take him away or other guys have to step up and make plays, and they did that Monday night. That’s the type of group we have.”
Rookie receiver Diontae Johnson was the recipient of the targets against the Bengals, overcoming an early lost fumble with six catches for 77 yards that included a 43-yard touchdown catch for a 24-3 lead. Since Rudolph became the starter, Johnson has emerged as a top target, catching 10 passes for 146 yards and two scores. Smith-Schuster has caught nine passes for 153 yards and a touchdown in 10 quarters with Rudolph as the quarterback.
“That’s part of the thing that comes with being in JuJu’s position,” Fichtner said. “He attracts more attention, and that’s why the other guys have to be in position to make their plays, and Diontae has done a nice job the last couple of weeks.”
After two games of asking Rudolph to throw mostly screens, shovel passes and other assorted short throws, the Steelers could ask him to throw deep more frequently against the Ravens, who have the NFL’s No. 30-ranked passing defense with 302 yards allowed per game. The Ravens have surrendered six pass plays of 40-plus yards, tied for most in the NFL.
“We’ve made some big plays. We’d like to make more,” Fichtner said. “We’re hunting for more all the time.”
So is Rudolph, who wasn’t known as a dink-and-dunk passer at Oklahoma State. Perhaps the Ravens will provide him the chance to get Smith-Schuster and Washington involved in the offense more than they were against the Bengals.
“We took the underneath stuff and forced them to come up and you see what happens later in the game. You get the over route by Diontae for a touchdown,” Rudolph said. “It’s a process. You guys can say we’re not throwing it deep all you want, but sometimes that’s football. Take what’s there. I mean, I love throwing the ball deep. I was criticized often for doing that too much in college. So it’s refreshing to be the opposite.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .