While he won't be adding to his FirstEnergy Stadium record of 11 regular-season wins by a starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger will be on the sideline Thursday night when the suddenly surging Steelers take on the Browns. The Steelers are trying to stay on the inside track of the , while the Browns are hoping to beat Pittsburgh for the first time since 2014 while keeping their faint playoff hopes alive in the process.
Roethlisberger, who underwent season-ending surgery on his right elbow two weeks into the season, recently discussed his injury with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He also offered a hopeful timetable for his return.
"OTAs. Minicamp. Somewhere in there," said Roethlisberger, who ended any possible speculation about his future bystating his plans to fulfill the remainder of his contract shortly after sustaining the season-ending injury. "Just taking it nice and slow, doctors' orders. It's all about what they say."
While he's focused on rehabbing for next season, Roethlisberger, a 16-year veteran, is trying to make the most of the 2019 season. Along with working on his rehab, Big Ben has been working with his replacement, Mason Rudolph, who is 4-2 as a starter this season following Sunday's 17-12 win over the Rams. While he has received some grief for his lack of aggressiveness downfield, Rudolph's stats are impressive. Through seven games, Rudolph -- who sustained a concussion in Pittsburgh's Week 5 loss that kept him out of the Steelers' Week 6 win in Los Angeles -- has completed 64.5 percent of his passes with an 11/4 touchdown/interception ratio.
On Sunday, facing a secondary that included Jalen Ramsey and Eric Weddle, Rudolph completed 22 passes that included a three-yard touchdown strike to James Washington, his former college teammate at Oklahoma. The duo connected three times for 40 yards on Pittsburgh's final scoring drive, as the Steelers won their fourth straight game after a 1-4 start.
"I think Mason is doing great," Roethlisberger said of Rudolph, who on Thursday will look to win his first game against fellow 2018 draft classmate, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. "He's doing some really good things. It doesn't matter what comes his way. He stays in the pocket when he needs to. He makes plays when he needs to. I think he's playing awesome. I'm proud of him."
Many Steelers fans, despite Rudolph's success, have openly wondered how good their team would be this season if Big Ben was under center. While Pittsburgh's offense has had its growing pains this season, the Steelers' defense is coming into its own since trading for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick two weeks into the season. Fitzpatrick, who has four interceptions and two touchdowns in Pittsburgh's past three games, has helped the Steelers force the second most turnovers in the NFL this season. On Sunday, the Steelers forced four turnovers, sacked Jared Goff four times while holding the Rams to just 1 of 14 on third downs.
While we'll never know how good this Steelers team would be with Big Ben under center, the reality is that Pittsburgh can make the playoffs with Rudolph as their starting quarterback. To do that, however, Rudolph will have to take care of the Ohio teams on Pittsburgh's schedule, as the Steelers' next three games are against Cleveland (twice) and the winless Bengals. The Steelers are 17-0-1 against the Ohio teams dating back to the 2015 season, with Big Ben -- an Ohio native -- being the difference in many of those games.
Rudolph, for his part, is hoping to do more to help the offense further complement its red-hot defense during the second half of the season.
"They're playing like the '85 Bears," Rudolph said of Pittsburgh's defense following Sunday's win. "It seems like, every week, they're forcing turnovers every other series. We understand it's a team game. It's a process. I think we're getting there ... but yeah, we wanna have their backs more often. It's an on-going effort to back them up because they've been playing unbelievably well."