‘Excited’ Rudolph eager to prove himself


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Mason Rudolph takes the snap during the Steelers' Week 2 loss to the Seahawks at Heinz Field. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Here comes Mason Rudolph. 

The second-year quarterback takes over as the Steelers' starter for the 2019-20 campaign after Ben Roethlisberger's season abruptly ended due to elbow surgery.

Roethlisberger went 8 for 15 for 75 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions in one half of play in the Steelers' Week 2, 28-26 loss to the Seahawks before exiting the game. One day later, the team announced the elbow injury required surgery, moving Rudolph into the starting role for the remainder of the year.

In relief of Roethlisberger, Rudolph got his first taste of regular-season NFL action — and he tested well, going 12 of 19 for 112 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Even that one ding, the interception, was not on Rudolph. He threw a third-down pass intended for Donte Moncrief that clanged off the receiver's hands and into the diving arms of the Seahawks defender, putting a smudge on an otherwise solid debut.

Today, Rudolph spoke with reporters at the Rooney Complex about this early-season twist and what it means for his career and the team moving forward.

Here is everything he had to say during that 10-plus-minute session, including what he expects from Roethlisberger moving forward, and more.

His reaction to the news: “It’s crazy. It’s obviously losing the leader of our team, but just kind of a crazy turn of events with an injury. But I’m excited to step up. That’s what backups do. That’s what I’ve done my entire career, whether it be high school, college or now. Nothing different for me. So I’m just going to be the same person I am, continue to prepare. I told you guys I try to prepare like I’m the starter [even] when I’m not, and I’m going to continue to go through my same weekly routine and put a good game plan together with the staff and go execute.” 

Have you talked to Roethlisberger? “I haven’t. I think he’s been in MRIs and doctor’s meetings. Coaches told me he’d be in at some point today, so I’m sure we’ll talk and go over what happened.” 

Did you get the sense last night this would be the case? “I heard this morning, early this morning with a lot of our other teammates kind of at the same time, about the extent of the injury. So did I think, 'It would be this severe?' I didn’t know because the MRI still had to be done so I was just, you know, prepared either way to step up or to continue in my role. I just figured it out here like everyone else did.” 

Your reaction to becoming the starter: “I’m excited. It’s kind of a sucky circumstance with, like I said, our leader and a good friend going down, but he would want me to step up and lead to the best of my ability. That’s what I’ve always believed in. That’s what I’m going to do. So I’m just excited to get some more practice reps, right? That’ll be fun to kind of go into a game and feel a little bit more rehearsed and prepared. So I’m excited and, like I said, I’m going to do what I’ve always done and step up to the plate.” 

Did Ben offer any words of encouragement after he went out? “Yeah, we talked a lot in between series, like we always do. But he was very encouraging. We looked at the tablets there and we kind of had some conversations about what the defense... what looks they were presenting and just [kept] good communication like we always have.” 

Did Ben mention any elbow issues in preseason or early part of season? “Really the first I heard was kind of this past week. I guess right after the New England game expressing some pain, but that was the first I had heard. You’d have to ask him or Coach Tomlin if it was pre-existing before that. But I have no clue.” 

How did the offense change with you vs. Ben? "It didn’t change much yesterday at all. It was just a matter of, like I said, like Randy [Fichtner] asking me, ‘Hey, what are your favorite calls?’ Every quarterback’s got their, you know, kind of their favorites out of the game plan. I always kind of star my stuff and then listen to what Ben likes in our meeting Saturday night and just make sure I communicated that stuff to Randy, and I was ready to roll with kind of my favorites. But I don’t think it’s going to change. I’m a prototypical guy, and that’s kind of our offense, what they ask us to do, and I don’t see that changing at all.” 

Did you think about the opportunity when you got home after the game? “Yeah. Of course I thought about it. I obviously was waiting on the word … You gotta react to adversity, and I’m getting to play football and getting to fulfill a dream and continue this at this level. And I’m excited to do that.” 

How much will you lean on Ben moving forward? “As much as he lets me. When you’re the backup, you don’t ever want to over-burden your starter with questions, but he’s been great with answering them. Our relationship’s definitely, it seems to have grown this year. Just like anything. When I was a starter at Oklahoma State, you’re not going to be best buddies with the new freshman. You’re just not … But he’s done a great job of kind of opening up to myself and the rest of the guys in the room.” 

Is it different replacing a guy of Roethlisberger’s status? “Yeah. I mean, he’s a legend. He’s a future Hall of Famer and an unbelievable player. I truly do learn something every week from him, whether that be communication-wise or just his creativity in no-huddle. He’s a great player, and like I said to my man over here, I’m going to continue to lean on him and try to meet with him as much as I can during the week, however available he is.” 

Did you think you’d get to this starting role so soon? “You never know. You gotta attack every day like it’s your last and pour everything into it and prepare like you are the starter. That’s what I tried to do last year. I was the No. 3 guy and as tough as that was, I still tried to wake up and accomplish goals and practice and get the reps that I could and make the most of them. I’m not into the business of predicting the future, but I just know that I prepare myself [so I could] be ready to roll.” 

Was it tough to keep that mentality throughout your rookie year? “Yeah. There have been plenty of quarterbacks who hadn’t played immediately. And I was encouraged by that, and you kind of had people coming aside and telling you that stuff. That’s all fine and dandy. In the moment, you’re still kind of, you know … You want to play. You’re pissed. It’s all short-term. I tried to have a long-term mentality and understand that hopefully I’ll be playing this game a long time. And as long as I’m ready for my opportunity, that’s kind of all that matters.” 

Was there a special type of adrenaline involved yesterday when you filled in? “Honestly, I was playing in the preseason just two weeks ago, [and] it just kind of felt like a preseason game. I felt like I had just been out there. And with the reps they gave me, a lot with the first team, it wasn’t — you always have adrenaline when you play football. That’s kind of what’s great about it. I just felt like it was very comfortable to go in there and have the o-line and those guys around me that I enjoy playing with.” 

Is it a different type of stress now to prepare with a full week ahead? “I’m a big prep guy, and having a whole week of reps instead of just a Wednesday, it’ll be awesome. I think any time that you can get the muscle memory, that’s a huge part of it. I’ve never been a guy that can just go out and wing it, you know, kind of on a short week … So I’ve always really been excited about the practice reps and going through the week.” 

Does it surprise you how fast things can change? “Well, I worked for this and I wanted to be in this position and that was always the plan. Obviously, would I have liked it to have happened sooner, maybe last year? Yeah, but God’s got a plan, and I’m just trying to, like I said, take it day by day. I just enjoy playing with all my teammates here, man, and coming to work and playing professional football for a living. It’s a joy and whenever things happen, that’s out of my control.” 

Who have you met with in the organization since the MRI? “No one. I just got kind of a phone call from some coaches and some trainers and we just [did] our normal Monday, just lifting and running and about to go meet here in a little bit.” 

Any indication they’d sign a veteran backup? “No, they haven’t told me anything about that.” 

This is a trying year for the receivers group already with coach Darryl Drake’s passing … How do you kind of step up as a leader with now this added onto that? “Nobody can replace Coach Drake and that kind of father-figure, coaching-figure that he was. And I’m certainly not trying to do that myself. But those guys are good. Coach Sherman stepped up big time. He’s awesome, he’s got a lot of experience in the league and those guys kind of really rally around him. So I’m just going to try to be another voice alongside him, do whatever I can. I’m not going to be somebody who I’m not. But Coach Ray’s got that room under control and he’s done a great job.” 

Did you have a situation like this at Oklahoma State? “Freshman year, I played against Baylor on the road. As a freshman, I kind of had my redshirt pulled there. That was my first, I guess … I was blessed to have the whole week of preparation for Baylor that week but it did feel pretty similar in that you hadn’t played in a while, you hadn’t really played, for me, all last year … You kind of get thrown in there, and you have some nerves, but it’s just playing football at the end of the day once you get those early completions.”

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