When Mason Rudolph entered the game for the Steelers in garbage time to clean up their dominating win over the Browns today, we were all reminded how close the undefeated Steelers are to being completely irrelevant in the Super Bowl conversation.
That sounds weird, doesn't it? Especially because over the next few days, you'll hear talking heads across all airwaves pontificating on Pittsburgh's prowess. They'll say the Steelers' defense is the most complete unit in football. Their offense will be hailed for the well-drafted young playmakers they've developed. They will be called Super Bowl favorites. All of that is true. What's also true is they have no chance to reach the Super Bowl with Rudolph as their starting quarterback, which, unfortunately for them, is also a realistic scenario.
Long-time Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn't played a full season since 2018 and has only played one full season since 2015. He's coming off elbow surgery. Over the last decade, he's missed time because of a dislocated shoulder, a torn meniscus, a concussion, a sprained foot, dislocated ribs, broken ribs, and, shall I go on? The point is, he gets hurt. A lot. And misses time. Often. That's not good when your security blanket is Rudolph.
After Big Ben got hurt in Week 3 last year, Rudolph stepped in and went 5-3 as a starter, throwing for 1,765 yards and completing 62.2% of his passes with 13 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Those are solid numbers for a rookie, but his 82.0 quarterback rating and 36.8 QBR paint a clearer picture of his performance. He was buoyed by the Steelers' dominant defense and single-handedly lost them a winnable game against the Browns by throwing four interceptions. The Steelers missed the playoffs by one game.
This isn't to throw Rudolph under the bus. He's only 25 and could develop into a suitable starter. But when you have a team as talented as the Steelers, the difference between winning it all and losing early in the playoffs is small. Rudolph would be that difference for the Steelers. Not in a good way.
The Steelers do not have many better options, though. The quarterback free agent market is devoid of talent. They could sign someone off another team's practice squad, but then they'd have to learn Pittsburgh's offense. At that point, Rudolph would remain the top option.
That leaves the Steelers in a position where they have to hope Roethlisberger doesn't suffer a long-term injury. He could miss a game or two this season and the team should be fine in terms of making the playoffs. But once it's win-or-go-home time, the Steelers need Roethlisberger under center.
This isn't mind-blowing analysis. The Steelers have long relied on Roethlisberger remaining healthy to have a chance in the playoffs. But with a team as talented as this, when it's clear everyone is in Super-Bowl-or-bust mode, it feels more pertinent to mention.
The Steelers will go only as far as Roethlisberger's body allows. It's a dubious situation given his injury-riddled past, but it's the reality they face. The Steelers are arguably the best team in the NFL right now, but one big hit or awkward fall could render it all moot.