PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mason Rudolph's unlikely renaissance will continue into the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he is sticking with the former third-string quarterback ahead of a trip to AFC East champion Buffalo (11-6) on Sunday.
Rudolph is 3-0 as a starter since taking over for an ineffective Mitch Trubisky before a game against Cincinnati on Dec. 23. While starter Kenny Pickett has fully recovered from right ankle surgery in early December, Tomlin doesn't want to chance derailing the rhythm Pittsburgh's offense has found under Rudolph.
The Steelers (10-7) have averaged 27 points since Rudolph took over, a full 10 points more than they had been averaging during a sometimes rocky season that included a 1-4 stretch from mid-November to mid-December that dropped Pittsburgh out of playoff position. The move to Rudolph — languishing at the bottom of the depth chart for the past two seasons — in search of a “spark” turned into one of the league's more unlikely success stories.
Rudolph has thrown for 719 yards and three touchdowns without an interception while leading the Steelers to wins over the Bengals, Seattle and Baltimore as Pittsburgh slipped past several teams to reach the playoffs for the 11th time in Tomlin’s 17-year tenure.
“We’re simply staying with the hot hand and not disrupting the apple cart,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “We’ve been in some tough circumstances. He’s delivered, we’ve delivered.”
Rudolph has had a quarterback rating of 112 or higher since becoming the starter and expertly navigated the elements during a driving rain in Baltimore last Saturday, completing 90 percent (18 of 20) of his passes and hitting Diontae Johnson for a go-ahead 71-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“He’s making good decisions,” Tomlin said. “He’s working hard from a preparation standpoint and that preparedness is showing. There’s a cumulative body of work to speak to. Mason’s been here a long time and I think that’s a component of it as well.”
Rudolph, drafted by the Steelers in 2018, is on a one-year deal. It's too soon to tell what this rise over the past month means for his career going forward and Tomlin cautioned against reading too much into the fact that he remains, at least on paper, third on the depth chart behind Pickett and Trubisky.
“We’re going about our business cultivating a plan to win this week,” Tomlin said. “We care less about division of labor in terms of pieces of paper and depth charts and so forth.”
While Rudolph is in, star outside linebacker T.J. Watt is out. The NFL sack leader injured his left knee in the second half against the Ravens. Rookie Nick Herbig and veteran Markus Golden will fill in for Watt as the Steelers try to win a postseason game for the first time since beating Kansas City in the divisional round of the 2016 playoffs.
“You've got a few lines in the water when you're trying to replace a guy like TJ,” Tomlin said.
Pittsburgh has struggled over the years during the rare times Watt, in the mix to win his second AP Defensive Player of the Year award, has been out of the lineup. The Steelers went 1-6 last season when Watt went on injured reserve with a pectoral injury then responded with a 7-2 finish.
Herbig has shown flashes during his first season, including getting a key strip-sack against the Seahawks that allowed Pittsburgh to pull away late. Golden has four sacks this season while playing a limited number of snaps.
“It is going to be a committee approach,” Tomlin said. “Even in doing so, we better strengthen our output in other areas because TJ is one of a kind.”
Pittsburgh is optimistic Pro Bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick will be able to return after missing three games with a knee injury. Fitzpatrick is likely to be limited in practice early in the week, but indicated he expects to be ready to go. The Steelers will also have Damontae Kazee available at safety after he served a three-game suspension for a series of illegal hits.
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