In describing Mason Rudolph's play against the Browns in Week 17, Mike Tomlin aptly used the word "gritty." The third-year quarterback from Oklahoma State was solid as he pushed the ball downfield, mostly avoided mistakes, and competed until the final whistle.
Here, we're going to examine the All-22 for a look at Rudolph's three best and worst plays from last Sunday. And since I'm a fan of the old adage of beginning with the bad news and ending on a positive, we'll start with the plays Rudolph probably wishes he could get back.
Mixed up on well-drawn coverage in the opening series
On this play it's 3rd and 5 from the 49 and the Steelers come out in 11 personnel with three receivers, a pretty good indication that a pass is coming. Pre-snap, the Browns are showing man free coverage with a pressure look, meaning it appears that all the route runners will have man to man matchups with a single high safety playing centerfield. Right before the snap, number 33 Ronnie Harrison Jr. drops back into a 2-shell which is the first clue that the Browns are likely disguising something.
Six defenders look as though they could be coming for Mason, and it's up to him to figure out which of them actually will. As the ball is snapped, the slot corner comes rushing, but three linebackers that showed pressure drop back, leaving only 4 pass rushers and 7 men in coverage. This look confuses Rudolph, whose first read is now covered, which leads to some indecision and an incomplete pass.
Not an awful play, but certainly evidence of a lack of game reps. Mason probably should have pulled the trigger on the drag to Johnson on this one.
Missed touchdown to Claypool
This play came with the Steelers facing a 1st and 10 from the opposing 28 and still down by two scores. It looks like the Browns are playing cover-6 here, which essentially means that the top half of the screen is playing cover 2 (man to man with one safety) while the bottom half of the screen is in quarters (zone concept with two defensive backs responsible for half of the deep half, hence the term quarter).
It's a pretty good route concept with Vance McDonald occupying the middle of the field and Rudolph does a solid job of holding the safety with his eyes to create a window for Claypool. Rudolph *just* misses on this throw. A tad more toward the goal post and this is probably six points.
The ugly interception
On this 3rd and 10, the Browns show man free and stick to their guns. Six defenders are coming for Rudolph on the blitz. Benny Snell isn't able to get a good piece of the linebacker in pass protection, Rudolph drops his eyes, panics, and throws a ball that he isn't entirely sure about. Bad mistake and hopefully, lesson learned. Ideally, you never want to take a sack, but you just gotta live to fight another day here.
41 yards to Diontae Johnson
This was a really impressive throw from Rudolph on 3rd and 11. He knows that he has man to man with Johnson at the top of the screen with only one safety available to help out the corner. He holds the safety with his eyes and delivers a perfect strike to Johnson despite some interior pressure right in his face.
Not an easy play at all.
41 yards to Claypool
If you're sensing a theme with these coverages, it's because there is one: the Browns constantly challenged Rudolph to beat them, and on this play he did. The Browns are either in cover-2 or cover-1 robber, but regardless Rudolph knows he has a chance for a one on one shot to Claypool. He quickly holds the safety with his eyes by looking toward JuJu and leads Claypool perfectly on the go route for a big play. Rudolph really excelled with deep ball accuracy in this game and this play is a great example of how he took what the defense was giving him with belief in his arm.
Keeping the game alive on 4th down
I really enjoyed this play because in a tough situation--down 15 points on 4th and 6 with 10 mins left in the game--Rudolph trusted his eyes, trusted his receiver, and made an accurate, anticipatory throw.
Yet again, the Browns are showing man free coverage pre-snap, and yet again, the blitz look that they present is merely a disguise as the linebackers drop into coverage. Still, Rudolph stays poised, recognizes that he still has man to man with Johnson at the top of the screen, and accurately moves the chains. Notice how the ball leaves Rudolph's hands before Johnson is even out of his break.
Also, a great route by Diontae to sell the corner on the go-route before cutting back to the ball.
Overall grade: B-
Rudolph wasn't overwhelming, but as a spot start, it definitely was not bad. You can tell he's taken some strides from last season and while it's too soon to declare him the heir to Big Ben's throne, he at least showed that he's developing into a reliable backup.