Reslilient Steelers in Wild Card Mix
Resilience. If the Pittsburgh Steelers season in 2019 could be summed up in a single word, it’s definitely resilience—the ability to recover quickly from difficulties.
The Steelers season began on a difficult note when the 16-year quarterback and undisputed centerpiece of the team Ben Roethlisberger went down late in the second quarter of a Week 2 clash against the Seattle Seahawks.
Roethlisberger sustained a season-ending arm injury, forcing the 37-year-old veteran to undergo surgery on his right elbow. Pittsburgh dropped the game 28-26 to Seattle, and the season was off to a sour 0-2 launch.
Pittsburgh Shifts to an Unproven Arm
Enter backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, the Steelers’ third round draft selection out of Oklahoma State in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Rudolph had never manned a regular season NFL snap before being thrust into action to take over for Roethlisberger. Perhaps predictably, the team results weren’t fantastic. At least initially.
The Steelers went 1-2 over the next three weeks. Coach Mike Tomlin’s squad lost to the San Francisco 49ers 24-20 and trumped the hapless Cincinnati Bengals 27-3, before being narrowly ousted by the Baltimore Ravens in an overtime nail-biter by a score of 26-23.
A Bad Situation Gets Worse
Just when things couldn’t get any worse for the Steelers, they did. In the Baltimore game, Rudolph was rendered unconscious on a punishing hit from Ravens’ safety Earl Thomas. Third-string quarterback Devlin Hodges, making his NFL debut, entered to finish out the day for Pittsburgh.
Add it all up, and you have a Pittsburgh team without its top two quarterbacks and a 1-4 record after Week 5—an easy write-off in the NFL.
Rudolph and Hodges Partner for a Hot Streak
But the record on paper at the season’s quarter-way mark failed to capture a developing narrative. Rudolph was subtly coming into his own before the concussion. Hodges looked good stepping into a pressure cooker situation and completed 7 of his 9 pass attempts.
Pittsburgh had kept the score close against powerful, division-leading San Francisco and Baltimore sides. They had dominated the winless Bengals.
With Rudolph still out, Hodges got the nod in Week 6 in Los Angeles against the Chargers. The first-time starter showed sharp command throughout the game, completing 15 of 20 passes for 132 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
Running back James Conner rushed and caught for two scores while linebacker Devin Bush returned a fumble for a touchdown as the Steelers outlasted the Chargers 24-17.
Rudolph returned to action following a bye week to face the Miami Dolphins at home in Week 8. Pittsburgh handed Miami a 27-14 loss on another strong showing from Rudolph. The recovered quarterback delivered two touchdown throws and 251 passing yards in the win.
And so it went in Weeks 9 and 10, as the Steelers toppled the Indianapolis Colts 26-24 and the Los Angeles Rams 17-12.
The Steelers pulled up to a 5-4 record after Week 10, good for second place in the AFC North. They had started to look like the NFL’s greatest comeback story so far in 2019. Rudolph and Hodges were turning the abysmal starting team into a winning machine capable of making a splash in NFL moneylines, point spreads, and futures.
Will Resilience Result in the Playoffs?
There’s no reason to believe Pittsburgh is abandoning its unlikely climb. Despite an ugly 21-7 road loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 10—and Rudolph’s poorest performance to date—the Steelers remain in the hunt for a wildcard playoff spot.
The AFC North isn’t the strongest division in the NFL. Rudolph is by no means putting up Russell Wilson-like numbers. But he is doing a serviceable job in keeping Pittsburgh afloat, which is admirable for an inexperienced quarterback in his position.
Hodges impressed in his brief playing time. His ongoing role of buttressing Rudolph should not be overlooked, and he may be called upon to deliver down the stretch.
Even if the Steelers fail to secure a wildcard spot, there’s no denying the resilience the team will have shown all season, much of which can be attributed to two backup quarterbacks with zero regular season NFL experience coming into 2019.