As Mason Rudolph struggles, Big Ben's grip on Steelers tightens for 2020 and beyond

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

With a little over 13 minutes left in the third quarter of a critical division matchup Sunday, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had seen enough.

For nearly 32 game minutes, Tomlin saw his quarterback, Mason Rudolph, guide an uninspired offense to three points against the winless Cincinnati Bengals, a team that looks like the latest spiritual descendant of the 2008 Detroit Lions.

Yet, there the Steelers were, trailing 7-3 as Rudolph struggled. A tipped red-zone interception. Multiple overthrows. Slow processing. All of this contributed to an 8-for-16, 85-yard effort that appeared to be leading toward an end-of-game nightmare scenario. For the rejuvenated Steelers, that’s what a loss to the Bengals would have been. 

A disaster.

“I just felt like our offense needed a spark,” Tomlin later told reporters. “Mason wasn’t doing enough.”

Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph got benched in a victory against the Bengals. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

So Tomlin turned to his backup, Devlin “Duck” Hodges, a rookie from Samford who went undrafted because he was believed to possess more moxie than arm talent. Turns out that moxie was just what the doctor ordered, at least against the horrific Bengals, as the Steelers went on to outscore Cincinnati 13-3 the rest of the way to pull out a 16-10 win.

After the game, Tomlin wouldn’t say which quarterback will start next week against the Cleveland Browns. He hinted he may have already made the decision, he just wouldn’t share it.

“Duck came in and provided us with a spark,” Tomlin said, emphasizing the point with his trademark wide-eyed nod. “I like the contributions of Duck. I like his readiness. I also appreciate the efforts of Mason and the support of Mason after we made the change.”

By virtue of Sunday’s quarterback switch — and the play the Steelers have received from that position in general over the past two months — here’s what Steelers fans, coaches and players should also appreciate: the ability to hand the reins back to Ben Roethlisberger in 2020.

That’s right. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder; that saying applies to football, too.

When Roethlisberger, 37, first went down in Week 2 with a season-ending elbow injury, the Steelers’ two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, perhaps sensing the heartless nature of the NFL, promptly released a statement, succinctly noting that the Steelers “committed three years” to him and he intends to honor his contract and “reward them with championship level play.”

Those were strong words, and it’s hard not to wonder if Roethlisberger, a 16-year veteran, uttered them because of the presence of Rudolph, a third-round draft pick in 2018. NFL teams are always looking to get younger and thus, cheaper, and if Rudolph fared well, there was always a chance the organization could have moved on from their franchise icon.

There was surely a segment of Steelers fans who were ready to see a changing of the guard, fans who had grown tired of Roethlisberger’s penchant to hold the ball too long and weary of his unwillingness to use play-action, not to mention his inability to get the Steelers back to the Promised Land. If their Steelers could get a new quarterback — a new hope — who could do a Roethlisberger approximation at a fraction of his $34 million per year cost, they’d welcome it.

Well, nine games later, the need for a new hope at quarterback has stood up. It’s just … the new hope in 2020 will likely have to be the old hope. Despite the Steelers’ success — they’re 6-3 in their last nine — it has been a rough patch for Rudolph. In addition to missing a game with a concussion, he was also prominently involved in the ugliest subplot of the NFL regular season

What’s more, despite a respectable offensive line — he has completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 1,636 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions — his play has generally been uninspiring, hence the reason he didn’t get a longer leash Sunday. 

Since returning from that head injury, Rudolph has completed 59 percent of his passes while throwing five touchdowns and six interceptions in four games. He has also struggled with ball placement and pocket poise (has taken 10 sacks), which is a horrible mix in the NFL.

Rudolph will likely get more time to prove he belongs; he’s in only his second year and the general manager who drafted him (Kevin Colbert) remains in charge. But getting benched for an undrafted free agent because the team was on the verge of losing a division game to a winless team was, um, a rough look. And that’s putting it mildly.

As for Hodges, kudos to him. The 23-year-old is better than anyone thought he’d be; he can move around and create, as he showed in leading the Steelers to victory after his insertion Sunday. But if the Steelers are going to get back to winning Super Bowls, it seems clear that betting on Roethlisberger, even at his advanced age — while letting Rudolph and Hodges wage a war for who will earn the crack at being heir apparent — will be the best option for the immediate future. 

That last part is important, too, because Pittsburgh traded away its 2020 first-round pick for the sensational Minkah Fitzpatrick, and the roster is good enough, despite some holes, that using their 2020 second-rounder on another quarterback might be unlikely, meaning the earliest Pittsburgh could get another premium young QB option might be 2021.

And if that proves to be the case, well, that means the Steelers’ Super Bowl ceiling in the coming seasons will be determined by Roethlisberger’s well-established ability to mount a comeback when it matters.

More from Yahoo Sports: