No matter QB, better passing grade needed ☕


To continue reading, log into your account:

[theme-my-login show_title=0]
Steelers receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) and Diontae Johnson (18) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The Steelers have now won games this season two separate times with quarterbacks not named Ben Roethlisberger.

But that's not necessarily something new, despite the fact Roethlisberger is now in his 16th season.

The Steelers accomplished the same feat in 2010, when they won games with Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch, opening the season 3-1 while Roethlisberger was serving a four-game suspension. They also did it again in 2015, winning games with Michael Vick and Landry Jones starting in place of Roethlisberger.

In both of those instances, however, the Steelers not only had veteran backup quarterbacks in Batch and Vick, they also knew Roethlisberger was going to return at some point. Neither is the case this season, as Roethlisberger is on injured reserve and will miss the remainder of the season after suffering an elbow injury that required surgery.

That means it's Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges the rest of the way -- barring something unexpected. The duo has each won a start already this season, with Rudolph beating the Bengals three weeks ago and Hodges leading the team past the Chargers last Sunday.

But, as Mike Tomlin said, the Steelers (2-4) are in "survival mode" now, doing whatever it takes to win in a given week. That meant rolling out the Wildcat offense in the win over the Bengals and leaning heavily on running backs James Conner and Benny Snell in Los Angeles. Those two touched the ball 41 times on 56 offensive plays in last Sunday's 24-17 win over the Chargers.

Tomlin, however, isn't about to say that's the blueprint for the team the remainder of the season.

"I'm not anticipating anything other than us doing what is necessary for us to get out of stadiums with wins," Tomlin said. "We're not in the type of state where we can make any bold predictions in terms of personality. We're going to do whatever is required for us to secure victory, week in and week out."

It would be helpful to get more of a passing game going than what the Steelers are currently producing. It's a passing league and the Steelers, quite frankly, haven't had much of one.

The Steelers are averaging 200 yards passing per game, which ranks 28th in the league. Conner leads the team with 26 receptions, while JuJu Smith-Schuster has 25 and rookie Diontae Johnson has 20.

That puts Conner on pace for 69 receptions and Smith-Schuster, who had 111 catches in 2018, trending toward 67. That would be the fewest for a team leader since Heath Miller led the team with 71 catches in 2012.

But the Steelers feel there are better days ahead. They feel Rudolph, a second-year player, is making strides each week. He'll be back in the lineup when they return from their bye on Oct. 28 against the Dolphins after sitting out the game against the Chargers with a concussion.

“There is so much more we can prove,” said Smith-Schuster. “Once we get a game where we can complete a lot of runs, a lot of deep routes, a lot of deep passes where it’s a balanced offense. We have so much out there. We have so many weapons.”

That is certainly debatable. So is whether they'll use them or not. The plan with Rudolph and Hodges has largely been conservative, though Rudolph did start to go downfield with more regularity in his start two weeks ago against the Ravens.

The bottom line, however, is the Steelers are averaging 9.9 yards per catch. That, too, ranks 28th in the league. The Steelers haven't averaged less than 10 yards per catch since the 1970 NFL merger.

Johnson, a third-round draft pick, has emerged as a receiving threat opposite Smith-Schuster, but the Steelers need James Washington to be a more regular contributor.

Washington missed the game against the Chargers with a shoulder injury, but he has a chance to return against the Dolphins. He had his best game before being injured two weeks ago against the Ravens, catching three passes for 52 yards.

The Steelers need more of that from the 2018 second-round draft pick. Who's No. 2 behind Smith-Schuster isn't all that important, at least not to Tomlin.

"It's important for those guys to make plays when called upon," Tomlin said. "Who you designate as No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, all of those guys are No. 1s in their mind. And they need to be. This is professional football. It's a fine line between being a Pro Bowler and a special teamer. From a mentality standpoint, I want all of those guys to be ready when called upon. How you identify them is less important."

At this point, it's all about the wins. At 2-4, the Steelers are two games behind the Ravens in the AFC North standings. The defense is playing well. The offense doesn't need to be a top-10 unit. But it does need to produce enough to give the team a chance to win each week.

"We don't care where the plays come from. We're not in style-point mode. We're not even in personality mode. We just need to do what is required to move the chains, to ring up the scoreboard, to score one more point than our opponents in an effort to win football games," Tomlin said.

"What I want and where we are are two different things. I deal in reality. We're in a fragile state from a health standpoint, from a depth standpoint. In the midst of that, we had better find ways to win football games."

To continue reading, log into your account: