Mason Rudolph makes most of start in Pittsburgh Steelers’ win


PITTSBURGH — Sitting at the dais in the Steelers’ news conference room inside Acrisure Stadium, Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph admitted he had let his mind wander into the what-ifs.

What if Saturday was one of his final opportunities to prove he could make it as an NFL quarterback? After six roller-coaster seasons with only 18 starts — and just two in the past three years — did he truly belong in the league?

With 290 passing yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in the Steelers’ resounding 34-11 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals — Pittsburgh’s first win by more than one score all year — Rudolph proved to himself and a stadium of more than 66,000 fans that he can play winning football in the NFL.

“You got confidence in yourself as a player,” Rudolph said, “but you’re kind of thinking, ‘Am I going to jump into the commercial real estate realm next year or am I going to be playing quarterback?'”

Rudolph, who has been inactive for all but three games this season, made the most of his first start since Week 10 of the 2021 season from the jump. On the Steelers’ second play of the game, Rudolph connected with wide receiver George Pickens on a short throw, and Pickens took it 86 yards to the house for the Steelers’ longest touchdown since Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 97-yard score in Week 12 of the 2018 season.

“A fast start no matter whether you’re in high school, college or pro, it makes a difference, and especially when we’re at this venue at home gets the crowd into it, to get a guy like George going early and his run-after-catch ability, it’s just second to none,” Rudolph said. “So, it was a pretty cool view as I tried to chase him down from behind.”

Aided by that long scoring play, Rudolph threw for 130 yards in the first quarter, the most by a Steelers quarterback in any quarter since Kenny Pickett threw for 138 yards in the fourth quarter at the Los Angeles Rams in Week 7.

Rudolph orchestrated two more touchdown drives in the first half and helped the Steelers cap the second quarter with a field goal when he hit Pickens for a 44-yard completion on third-and-long. Pickens made a toe-tapping grab to keep the drive going, preventing the Bengals from getting the ball with time to work with before halftime. The pass traveled 44 air yards, making it the longest throw of the season by a Steelers quarterback — and the longest throw by a Steelers signal-caller since Rudolph connected with Diontae Johnson on a pass that traveled 47 air yards in Week 17 of the 2020 campaign.

In the third quarter, Rudolph found Pickens again, this time for a 66-yard touchdown. Three of the duo’s connections went for at least 40 yards, marking the first time since Rudolph’s start against the Cleveland Browns in 2020 that the Steelers’ offense has had at least three plays of 40 yards or more. In the five games before Saturday, the Steelers had just two total plays that went for at least 40 yards.

“Coach [Mike Tomlin] talked about it earlier this week that we got to be able to take those shots …,” Pittsburgh center Mason Cole said. “There just ain’t nothing to lose. Good to see the success down there, and good to see us complete those shots. It changed the game for us.”

With Rudolph at quarterback, the Steelers also scored their most points in a game since 2021 and had their highest yards-per-play average (6.8) since 2018.

“He was Mason,” Tomlin said. “We talked about it early in the week. He’s got a belief in himself. He’s aggressive in his play style, and I thought he did a really good job not displaying a lot of rust for a guy who hadn’t played obviously a lot.”

As he raced down the field to celebrate with his teammates following the 66-yard touchdown, Rudolph looked up in the crowd and found his parents. His dad last saw him play in person in 2021 when he caught a red-eye on short notice to watch his son get the start when Roethlisberger went on the reserve/COVID-19 list the night before the game. His mom, meanwhile, last cheered Rudolph in person at the final regular-season contest of the 2020 season.

Not only did his family watch him play — and win — on Saturday, they heard the crowd chant Rudolph’s name, including four times in the fourth quarter. Once maligned for his inconsistent play and tumultuous 2019 campaign, Rudolph was celebrated by a crowd that has had little reason to be excited recently.

“We’re all human,” Rudolph said. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it or I didn’t like it, but it’s a week-to-week league. I’ve been on the other end of it, so you try to block it out and play the game.

“We’ve got a bunch of passionate fans, and what a joy to play in front of them tonight, last home game while my family in town. It was amazing.”

Tomlin said it was too early to ask about the starting quarterback for the Week 17 game at the Seattle Seahawks, but Rudolph made a strong case to retain the job for another week as Pickett recovers from TightRope surgery following a right high ankle sprain.

“Listen, I play this game to play,” Rudolph said, asked if he had earned another start. “I’d love to play, but that’s out of my hands. I’ll find out the marching orders as we go.”

After the game, Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward gave Rudolph the game ball.

“Mason was ready for the moment,” Heyward said. “Three games we’ve lost in a row. Personally, I just felt like with everything going on, Mason attacked. There wasn’t any sitting back and letting things happen. He went out there and attacked the game. You saw a couple of times with third-and-1 throwing it deep and giving guys a chance.”

So, was beating the Bengals and getting his first game ball the best Christmas present he has received?

“I don’t know,” Rudolph said, grinning. “I got a tree house when I was like 12, which was pretty cool, but this is definitely up there.”

Research from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this report.

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