Through two weeks of NFL regular-season action, the Steelers are 0-2 and the sky is falling in the Steel City. A team that many people touted as having one of the most talented offenses has looked sluggish and completely inept as they’ve stumbled against both the Seahawks and Patriots.

While there are many games left, Pittsburgh fans may need to adjust their expectations a bit for the remainder of 2019. From Week 2 alone, there’s plenty of bigger storylines that emerged from the team’s loss to the Seahawks, which will no doubt affect their next game against San Francisco. The team lost more than just a game in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Brace yourselves, Steelers fans, as it’s probably going to get much worse before it gets better.

Injury gives way to the heir apparent at quarterback

Against the Patriots in Week 1, Ben Roethlisberger was harassed relentlessly and never looked comfortable enough to move the offense. The future Hall-of-Famer moved the ball for the Steelers a little better against Seattle in the first half, but he was still not entirely at ease. That uneasiness only intensified in the second quarter, as Roethlisberger appeared to injure his elbow with two minutes to go before halftime. The veteran QB never returned to the game, and second-year backup Mason Rudolph picked up the snaps for the rest of the matchup.

Despite throwing an interception, Rudolph showed great poise in his first real regular-season action. He tossed two touchdowns and demonstrated solid rapport with JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Vance McDonald. Rudolph won a close position battle for the backup quarterback job against Joshua Dobbs, who was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The young quarterback is viewed as the heir apparent to Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and will have a great chance to showcase his ability in 2019. On Monday, the team announced that Big Ben would undergo surgery and miss the remainder of the 2019 season. The Steelers’ starting quarterback job now belongs to Mason Rudolph after the team named him the official starter for the rest of the year.

When Pittsburgh drafted Rudolph in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, he was one of the better signal-callers available and showed some similarities to Roethlisberger. He is a big kid with a strong arm that came from a prolific offense in college. He was eleventh all-time in passing yards at Oklahoma State and a three-year starter. While his mobility may be limited, he can move well enough to avoid sacks and make plays outside the pocket when needed. These characteristics equate well to the former incumbent. Rudolph may not be ready to lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl, but he is well-equipped to keep this team competitive going forward.

Washington’s time to shine in Pittsburgh

One player that stands to benefit tremendously with the change under center is James Washington. The Steelers decided to open the year with Donte Moncrief as the starter, which has since changed. After a drop-filled two-game tryout for the free-agent addition, the Steelers pulled the plug on Moncrief, benching him in the third quarter against Seattle. In his two games as a starter, Moncrief contributed three catches for seven yards on 11 targets and a mind-boggling five dropped passes. The team decided to go with a mix of Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson in the second half.

While Johnson should also see a nice boost in playing time, it should be Washington who gets the start in Week 3 against the 49ers. Rudolph and Washington were teammates at Oklahoma State and have an obvious rapport already. That connection led to a dominant preseason effort for both players and could continue for the Steelers, starting in Week 3. Take a look at this touchdown from the dynamic duo against the Buccaneers in the first preseason contest.

I have long mentioned Washington as a breakout candidate on this site, and that may come to fruition in Pittsburgh very soon.

On the road to San Francisco next

The Steelers will travel to the 1-1 San Francisco 49ers in Week 3. The 49ers are coming off of a thrashing to the Steelers’ division rival Bengals. And just like the Seahawks, the 49ers have shown a penchant for running the ball well in the early going. They have three solid backs in Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson. They might not be household names, but they could be a big problem for the Steelers on Sunday.

The Niners’ defense has also played surprisingly well in 2019. The unit recorded two defensive touchdowns against Tampa Bay in Week 1 and held Cincinnati to 25 total rushing yards in Week 2. They have a very opportunistic secondary, and one that will be ready to pounce if the young Rudolph makes any mistakes.

Rudolph will likely need a big game from Smith-Schuster if the Steelers’ offense is going to be successful. JuJu has yet to have that breakout game this season, although he did accomplish something special this past Sunday. The third-year wide receiver passed Randy Moss as the youngest player in NFL history (22 years, 297 days) to surpass 2,500 yards receiving.

The Steelers cannot afford to fall to 0-3 to start the year, so this will be a daunting test for JuJu and the resolve of the rest of this team on the young 2019 season.


Scott Gorman is a writer for PFN covering the Pittsburgh Steelers. You can follow him @sgormanPFN on Twitter.