Mason Rudolph was knocked out of the game on a helmet-to-helmet hit in the third quarter of the Steelers' 26-23 loss to the Ravens on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, then was taken to Allegheny General Hospital before the game was over, then was released and back home by evening.
Rudolph was diagnosed as having a concussion and placed in the NFL's protocol.
Immediately after the hit by Baltimore safety Earl Thomas, Rudolph clearly lost consciousness before hitting the ground. The first teammates around him were Alejandro Villanueva and Ramon Foster, who frantically waived for the Steelers' athletic training staff to come help the unconscious Rudolph. He would remain motionless for several minutes.
This was the hit:
When I asked about Villanueva and his reaction to the play, he kept his emotions on the play to himself.
"It was football," Villanueva replied. "It was unfortunate, but it's part of the game. This is football. I've had my share of concussions as well. It's not something that is fun. My initial reaction was just to get medical personnel. It's what anyone else would've done."
Other Steelers were more expressive during and after the game. JuJu Smith-Schuster fell to the ground upon seeing Rudolph lie motionless and broke down into tears.
"That's a tough experience," Smith-Schuster said. "I've heard of situations where the person who is not moving at all doesn't get back up. I was just praying to God that he gets up. He is our quarterback and he is our guy. I am praying for a speedy recovery."
"Man, it's tough," David DeCastro said. "You hate to see your teammate down on the ground and in that position. It's heartbreaking. I think he's making good progress, but we'll see what the doctors say."
Rudolph walked off the field, supported by linemen B.J. Finney and Zach Banner because the medical cart wasn't working. Rudolph then was carted through the tunnel with Kevin Colbert standing nearby.
When asked why Rudolph had to walk off instead of getting on the cart, Mike Tomlin gave a simple response in his postgame press conference.
"Ask somebody that is in charge of that," Tomlin said. "I don't drive carts and things of that nature."
A small group of field personnel had to get behind the cart and physically push it off the field while Rudolph walked in the arms of his linemen, still wearing his helmet with the facemask removed.
Thomas would be flagged for a roughing the passer penalty, but not ejected. Thomas expressed his concern for Rudolph after the game, but he had no idea just how much damage he had done immediately after the play.
"I didn't think much of it," Thomas said about the hit after the game. "I was just getting to the ball, trying to make a play for my team. I hit the strike zone like we talked about, I didn't go high. I didn't try to intentionally hurt him. I'm worried about him. I heard he's at the hospital. My prayers go out to him and his family."
"But I'm never trying to hurt anybody," Thomas continued. "At the end of the day, guys have families. I never tried to intentionally hurt him. I was just flying to the ball like I normally do. I was asking the ref what happened and they said a part of my helmet hit him in the chin and that's what drew the flag. But I still believe that was not my intention."
Rudolph had completed 13 passes on 20 attempts for 131 yards and one touchdown, including the 26-yard pass to James Washington he completed before the hit from Thomas.
Once Rudolph left, Devlin Hodges, the undrafted rookie from Samford, had to finish the game.
Hodges would come in and throw seven completions on nine attempts for 68 yards, as well as run for 20 yards, including a 21-yard scramble that set up a Chris Boswell field goal for the Steelers to go up 23-20 late in the fourth quarter.
When asked about where his mind was upon seeing Rudolph go down, Hodges' first concern was about his teammate.
"First thing I thought was, 'Is Mason OK?'" Hodges said after the game. "Mason is my guy. I would say he is one of my closer friends on the team. He has really taken me in. You might see me on the sideline kind of just standing there, it wasn't because I was freaking out about me going in. I was just thinking about Mason and what's up with him and whether he's OK. After a minute, he was just lying there, he wasn't even moving. That is just tough to look at."
But that fear for his teammate didn't stop Hodges from gearing up to enter the game.
"As soon as you saw him lying on the ground, I knew," Hodges added. "I threw my headset down and ran and got my helmet. I didn't know how long he was going to be down for. I was ready to go in for ten seconds or a minute or however long it took."
Tomlin gave positive remarks on the fill-in job by the rookie quarterback.
"I thought [Hodges] represented himself well." Tomlin said after the game. "He gave us a chance. You have to tip your hat to him. You are talking about a guy that didn't make our opening 53 and all those things, we know his story. You also have to acknowledge that he has done some good things at every step along the way through the team development process when given the opportunity and that is why he is in the position that he is in. That is probably why he made the positive showing in spots that he did today."
Other Steelers in the locker room also offered praise of his play. When asked if the play calling changed once Hodges went in, James Conner said the plan was the same.
"We had a game plan and we had to stick to it," Conner said after the game. "It's everybody's job to be prepared. I thought [Hodges] played great. Minimal errors and stuff like that. He showed confidence. He's here for a reason. I believe in him, I know he believes. The whole team can believe in him. That's just the way the game goes. Everybody will be all in and have each other's backs."
Confidence was the word of the locker room when describing Hodges' first NFL appearance.
"Just a very confident quarterback," Smith-Schuster said on Hodges' performance. "He came in the game ready to play. He hasn't practiced at all throughout the week but knowing his confidence and how his emotions were strong, he was ready to play.
"He sounded confident," Villanueva added on Hodges. "The cadence was good, as was the execution. As you guys saw, he looked pretty comfortable out there."
Jaylen Samuels would add that the Steelers had faith Hodges had the potential to compete in his first game.
"He came in and did what he had to do," Samuels said. "He didn't rush with anything. He knew his stuff and what everyone was doing. We knew what he had in him, so for him to come out and make the plays that he did was huge. Especially that big run when he used his feet to get the first down."
Part of that confidence came from what they saw from him in college and how he performed in training camp and the preseason.
"The guy came to camp and played pretty well," DeCastro said of Hodges. "He's picking it up pretty quickly as a rookie. He's a baller. He placed a lot of records at D-1AA."
Hodges looked composed in the game as he threw passes downfield and ran an offense he's barely practiced in since being added to the 53-man roster after Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending injury against the Seahawks. Despite that limited experience, he felt like he had a command of the playbook.
"I was just playing football," Hodges said. "I feel like I know the offense. I just went out there and executing when depending on what play is called. I have always been a guy who is aggressive in throwing the ball and whatnot. Just execution of the game plan."
The Steelers will reveal more information on Rudolph's injury status during the week. They will be preparing to play the Chargers next Sunday night at Dignity Health Sports Park. Before then they'll have to make a decision on how to move forward at quarterback, presumably with Hodges as the starter until Rudolph can return from concussion protocol.
But who might back him up could be a big question. The team currently has two quarterbacks on its practice squad. Former first round pick, Paxton Lynch was added after Hodges was promoted to the 53-man roster. And Taryn Christion was added to help simulate the running style of Lamar Jackson for the defense in practice this week.
Presumably that job would go to Lynch, but the team could consider a free agent signing of a veteran in case of an emergency when they lose their third quarterback. But until then, Hodges looks like their man to lead the offense until the team gets more information.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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