PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – The Pittsburgh Steelers are sticking with Mason Rudolph ahead of their pivotal regular-season finale against Baltimore.
Coach Mike Tomlin said Monday that Rudolph will make a third straight start for the Steelers (9-7) even with Kenny Pickett expected to be available after recovering from right ankle surgery. Rudolph has been spectacular at times while throwing for 567 yards and two touchdowns during wins over Cincinnati and Seattle to help Pittsburgh keep its playoff chances alive.
The Steelers have multiple ways to reach the postseason, most of them predicated on beating the Ravens (13-3) on Saturday. Baltimore clinched the top seed in the AFC by dismantling Miami on Sunday and could sit several regulars — including MVP candidate Lamar Jackson — with home-field advantage wrapped up.
Pittsburgh will prepare as if Jackson is playing and even if Jackson is given the day off, Rudolph will likely have to deal with a defense that’s allowed the fewest points in the league. Rudolph has certainly looked up to the challenge while providing a welcome (and long overdue) spark.
“He’s done a good job and we’ve done a good job in the most recent two weeks,” Tomlin said. “We’ve taken care of the ball. He’s taken care of the ball. We’ve scored points at a rate 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.”
One player benefiting from Rudolph’s QB play is WR George Pickens. The standout WR has accumulated 15 catches, for 326 yards and two touchdowns in the two games that Rudolph has started.
RBs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren have strung together two productive games on the ground as well. Harris has rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns, while Warren has added 99 yards on the ground and one touchdown. The Oklahoma State product has also caught nine balls for 53 yards through the air.
Latest on QB Kenny Pickett
Pickett hasn’t played since injuring his right ankle late in the first half of what became a 24-10 loss to Arizona on Dec. 3. He underwent “tightrope” surgery on the ankle shortly thereafter and returned to practice two weeks ago. While Pickett was listed as “questionable” ahead of Pittsburgh’s visit to Seattle, he was inactive as Rudolph guided an offense that racked up 468 yards and scored 30 points for a second consecutive week for the first time in more than three years.
Tomlin said Pickett was cleared by the medical staff to play, but pointed to Pickett’s lack of practice time with the starters and the unlikelihood of both Rudolph and Mitch Trubisky getting injured as the reason he didn’t make Pickett the emergency third-stringer against the Seahawks.
Tomlin said Pickett is a “competitor” but understands the circumstances.
“He wants the football, he wants to play, but at the same time, he’s a team player,” Tomlin said. “And so, you know, our agenda is winning football games right now. And so I imagine that’s everyone’s mindset.”
How Mason Rudolph got here
Rudolph, a six-year veteran who is one of the longest-tenured players on the roster, spent the better part of the past four seasons on the bench and was buried on the depth chart since the summer of 2022 until Arizona defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter landed on Pickett’s right ankle and Trubisky spent 2 1/2 games trying and failing to spark an offense so lethargic this season it led to offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s firing a couple of days before Thanksgiving.
The 28-year-old Rudolph, a third-round pick in 2018, will be a free agent in March and was only semi-joking when he said recently he wondered if he’d be in the NFL or selling real estate in 2024. His play after being thrust into the lineup amid a three-game losing streak means he’ll likely have a chance to stick around in the league next year, maybe even in Pittsburgh.
“It’s just fun, playing football after not doing a whole lot of that for the last few years,” Rudolph said after completing 18 of 24 passes for 274 yards, including a clinching completion to Pickens with under two minutes remaining that allowed the Steelers to drain the clock.
It was a somewhat gutsy decision and indicative of Tomlin’s belief in Rudolph and Rudolph’s belief in himself.
“He’s got a great deal of confidence in himself, and it is real,” Tomlin said. “I think it’s contagious. He’s aggressive in (his) 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.”
Tomlin allowed that there could be a ripple effect of starting Rudolph with Pickett — a first-round pick in 2022 who is 14-10 as a starter — healthy, but he isn’t ready to discuss the potential ramifications, mostly because there is still so much at stake.
“We are more of a day-by-day, week-by-week outfit,” Tomlin said. “At this point, hypotheticals and speculation is fruitless for us. We’ve 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.”
NOTES: Tomlin said S Minkah Fitzpatrick (knee) and LB Elandon Roberts (pectoral muscle) could return to practice at some point this week. Fitzpatrick has sat out the past two weeks and Roberts didn’t play on Sunday after getting hurt early in the victory over the Bengals.
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