Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

Mike Tomlin wasted no time last week. He didn’t want there to be any questions about who the Steelers’ starting quarterback would be.

“(Mason Rudolph) is our quarterback when he clears the protocol, and it’s as simple as that,” Tomlin said. “We appreciate the efforts of (Devlin Hodges) and all, but as soon as (Rudolph) is ready to go, he’s ready to go.”

There shouldn’t have been any question.

Hodges was a great story last week. Heck, he’s a great story, period.

But Rudolph is the better quarterback now and in the future.

It cannot, however, be overstated just what Hodges did last week in Los Angeles against the Chargers.

First, he saved the Steelers’ season, or at least kept it alive. The AFC is, well, bad. And even at 2-4, the Steelers are very much alive in the playoff race.

They have the league’s second-easiest remaining schedule, thanks to playing perhaps the most difficult schedule in the first six weeks. Their four losses have come against teams with a combined record of 20-3. And three of those losses were by a combined nine points.

The Steelers needed that win against the Chargers.

It also probably bought Hodges a roster spot, not just for the remainder of this season but next year as well. He showed he could get a team out of a game with a win.

But Rudolph was starting to show signs he can be at least an average quarterback before the Ravens’ Earl Thomas tried to forcibly remove his head from his neck in the third quarter of that game. Rudolph was having his best day throwing the football.

He gives the Steelers the best chance to win the rest of the way.

  • All of that said, the Steelers’ passing game needs to be better.

They are currently averaging 9.9 yards per reception. That’s the lowest total for the Steelers since the 1970 NFL merger.

Much of that is because they’ve been throwing so many passes to the running backs. They need to get the wide receivers more involved.

• Conversely, the Steelers are allowing only 10.2 yards per reception. Which, considering they’ve faced Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Lamar Jackson in the first six games, is really good.

The defense has been downright nasty since the opener against the Patriots.

Losing defensive end Stephon Tuitt last week to a torn pectoral muscle hurts. He was having an outstanding season.

But the defense is good enough to carry this team – if the offense becomes an average unit. And league average, right now, is putting up about 22.5 points per game.

  • Do the Steelers have one more trade left in them? They’ve already made deals to acquire safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and tight end Nick Vannett.

One more that could really make a difference would be making a deal with the Denver Broncos for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

The Broncos fell to 2-5 with their loss Thursday night to the Kansas City Chiefs and Sanders is signed only through the end of this season.

He would give the Steelers another viable weapon in the passing game who can play inside or outside receiver. And, if they chose not to re-sign Sanders at the end of the season, the contract he would sign with someone else as a free agent could help the Steelers recoup a compensatory pick in 2021.

Sanders would be a pure rental, but it would essentially cost only his salary to get him.

This week’s picks

Seattle (minus 3) over Baltimore: Other than their overtime win over the Steelers, the Ravens’ wins have come over the Dolphins, Cardinals and Bengals. That’s not exactly Murderer’s Row. This comes down to Russell Wilson against Lamar Jackson. And Wilson’s the league MVP. He’s playing at a different level than everyone else right now. Take the Seahawks, 27-23

Jacksonville (minus 4) over Cincinnati: The Bengals are a mess. Jacksonville surprisingly has the league’s worst run defense, but the Bengals’ offensive line is so bad, even Joe Mixon won’t be able to take advantage of it. Leonard Fournette, on the other hand, will have a field day against the Cincinnati defense. Take the Jaguars, 24-13

Houston (plus 1) at Indianapolis: With Patrick Mahomes out at least three weeks, the Texans have a shot to put themselves in position for the No. 2 seed in the AFC. And, they beat the Chiefs last week. The Colts are good, but look for DeAndre Hopkins to have a big game against the Colts’ Cover-2 defense. Take the Texans, 30-27

San Francisco (minus 10 ½) at Washington: Typically, a West Coast team coming east would be troublesome. But San Francisco has the league’s best defensive line and the Redskins won’t be capable of blocking it. Also, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder fired 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and his father, Mike, a few years back. The 49ers will be looking to rout the Redskins and have the goods to do so. Take the Redskins, 34-10

N.Y. Jets (plus 10 ½) over New England: The Patriots are unbeaten, but haven’t looked great on offense since their season-opening win over the Steelers. The Jets, meanwhile, are starting to get healthy. They got quarterback Sam Darnold back last week and get inside linebacker C.J. Mosley back this week. They might not win this game, but the 10½ points is too much. Take the Jets to cover in a 24-17 loss.

Last Week 3-2. Overall 19-10

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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