Though 2022 first-round pick Kenny Pickett has been medically cleared to return following TightRope surgery on his ankle, coach Mike Tomlin said Monday he’s sticking with Rudolph at quarterback in a must-win regular-season finale against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday.
“Kenny’s availability is less than question this week,” Tomlin said Monday. “I anticipate him being available to practice. That being said, we’ve got to leave the ball in Mason Rudolph’s hands. He’s done a good job, and we’ve done a good job in the most recent two weeks. We’ve taken care of the ball. He’s taking care of the ball. We score points at a rate and which we hadn’t done to this point this year. And with the urgency of the moment and because of those reasons, we’re going to leave the ball in his hands.”
While the Steelers can make the playoffs even if they lose at Baltimore, their path is easier if they can beat the Ravens on Saturday and get help from other teams throughout the final weekend of games.
Since Rudolph, who replaced Mitch Trubisky in the final minutes of the Week 15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, took over the starting job against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers offense has erupted to average 32 points and 432.5 yards of offense per game. In the win against the Seattle Seahawks, Rudolph completed 18 of 24 attempts for 274 yards with no interceptions.
“He’s done a nice job,” Tomlin said of Rudolph. “He’s got a great deal of confidence in himself, and it is real. I think it’s contagious. He’s aggressive in style of play, and I think that’s helpful, particularly when you’re up against it. The calculated risk taking associated with the pursuit of victory is important, and he’s displayed those things. But it’s more than obviously what he has done, is what we have done or that collective has done.
“We run the ball extremely well. Over the last two weeks we’ve been in manageable possession down circumstances. We run the ball well in the red area, particularly yesterday, three rushing touchdowns to add to the red area. You know, you’re not able to absorb in a lot of risk when you’re performing and performing in that way. And so it’s just been a good trend for us. Our desire is to keep that trend rolling. We’re going into a hostile environment versus a really good opponent, one that’s extremely hot, obviously. And so we better utilize all the mojo at our disposal in an effort to secure victory.”
Completing 68.5% of his pass attempts with two touchdowns in two starts, Rudolph recorded QBRs of 70.9 and 79.1, respectively. Pickett, meanwhile, has struggled throughout his second season and has a 38.8 QBR while completing 62% of his attempts with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
Rudolph is also averaging 282 passing yards per game, while Pickett averaged 172.5 per game in 12 starts. Drafted in 2018, Rudolph had a tumultuous start to his Steelers career when he unceremoniously took over the starting job for an injured Ben Roethlisberger in the second game of the 2019 season. He started nine games that season and threw 13 touchdowns to 9 interceptions but was benched for one-time practice squad quarterback Devlin “Duck” Hodges.
“There’s a fine line between being a backup and a Pro Bowler National Football League,” Tomlin said. “They’re all professionals. They all are really good at what they do.”
Pickett was a limited participant in each practice leading up to the last two games, and he was medically cleared to play against the Seahawks. However, Tomlin elected to start Rudolph and make Pickett inactive with Trubisky as the backup because Trubisky and Rudolph got more work throughout practice.
“That clarity didn’t come until later in the week,” Tomlin said of Pickett’s availability, “and it was about the distribution of reps and who was best prepared and position to to to help us win. And so that’s the direction that we went with.”
Though the Steelers are starting Rudolph against the Ravens, Tomlin declined to say how that affected the team’s long-term plans with Pickett or if Pickett would return to start should the Steelers make the playoffs. Drafted in 2022, Pickett has two years left on his contract along with a fifth-year option.
“It depends on what happens this week, to be quite honest with you, man,” Tomlin said of Pickett potentially starting in the playoffs. “We’re more of a day-by-day, week-by-week outfit. At this point, hypotheticals and speculation is fruitless for us. We got so many tangible challenges and so much tangible work to do. We’re just not wasting a lot of time speculating and things of that nature.”