Mason Rudolph alternates between shaky and promising in first start after Ben Roethlisberger injury

Jack Baer
Yahoo Sports Contributor

Mason Rudolph didn’t exactly establish himself as one of the NFL’s premier young quarterbacks in his first start since Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury, but he wasn’t without his moments.

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The Pittsburgh Steelers fell 24-20 to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, failing to capitalize on five turnovers from their opponent. Overall, the team was outgained 436-241, but still lost by only four points.

It was a slow day for the Steelers’ offense, and a lot of that fell on an inconsistent day for their second-year quarterback.

Mason Rudolph’s up-and-down day

Outside of his two touchdown passes that combined for more than half of his passing yards for the day, Rudolph struggled.

His day started with him going 8-for-15 for only 40 passing yards in the first half. He then opened the second half with an interception, and ended it with a failed game-winning drive in which his team didn’t record a first down.

Of course, it would be unfair to cast aside those aforementioned touchdowns. Rudolph indeed threw them, and it’s in those that you might see why the Steelers boldly traded away their first-round pick in next year’s draft despite it potentially being a better shot at a star-level replacement for Roethlisberger.

The first touchdown was a perfectly placed pass on a slant to JuJu Smith-Schuster that the receiver ran more than 60 yards to the house.

The other touchdown might have been even more impressive from a passing standpoint, with Rudolph finding Diontae Johnson — a third-round rookie out of Toledo — wide open in the end zone and dropping a fine pass.

That was the good. The bad came in, well, the rest of the game.

According to Rudolph’s Next Gen Stats passing chart, those two touchdowns were his only completions to receivers more than three yards from the line of scrimmage. He made his few mid-range and deep completions count, but that has to be concerning for a Steelers team that has thrived for years with its passing attack hitting all levels of the field.

Particularly costly for the Steelers were a pair of drives in the first quarter, when they got the ball inside the San Francisco 40-yard line twice and had to settle for field goals.

Rudolph completed five passes in those two drives, but none of them had the air that he displayed at Oklahoma State. Rudolph wasn’t helped by an again quiet run game, with James Conner going for only 43 rushing yards and a costly fumble on 13 carries.

Mason Rudolph looked solid at times, but the Steelers need him to be more than solid. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Steelers need Rudolph to succeed this season

Rudolph ended up going 14-for-27 for 174 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and an 81.4 passer rating. He’ll get a better chance to show his value next week against the winless Cincinnati Bengals.

The team bet big on Rudolph being the franchise’s future — first trading up in 2018 to draft him early in the third round, then trading a potentially valuable first-rounder for Minkah Fitzpatrick — and this season is his chance to prove them right. It’s still only one game and Rudolph was facing a now 3-0 Niners team, but the loss leaves the Steelers 0-3 with plenty of ground to make up in the AFC North.

But hey, at least Fitzpatrick looked good.

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