Pickens, Rudolph lead Steelers to crucial win over Bengals
“You have confidence in yourself as a player,” the longtime backup quarterback said. “But I'm kinda thinking, ‘Am I going to jump into the commercial real estate realm next year or am I going to play quarterback?’”
A job change may have to wait. There may be life in Rudolph's NFL career — and in the Steelers' unwieldy season.
Two-plus years after his last appearance in a regular-season game, Rudolph threw for 290 yards and two long touchdowns to embattled wide receiver George Pickens on Saturday as the Steelers gave their fading playoff hopes a jolt with a 34-11 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
With Kenny Pickett still recovering from right ankle surgery and with second-stringer Mitch Trubisky ineffective in two starts, Pittsburgh (8-7) turned to the third-longest tenured player on the roster. Rudolph responded by making the kind of big plays that have been lacking in the NFL's 28th-ranked offense for years as the Steelers snapped a three-game skid.
He hit Pickens for an 86-yard catch-and-run touchdown on Pittsburgh's second offensive snap and lobbed a rainbow in the third quarter that Pickens turned into a 66-yard score as the Steelers posted their highest point total in a win since 2020.
“I felt like we were balanced and we were clicking,” said Rudolph, who completed 17 of 27 passes for 290 yards.
That feeling has been rare for Pittsburgh even before Ben Roethlisberger's retirement after the 2021 season. The Steelers have spent the last three years relying heavily on a defense that would find ways to win tight games, with the offense mostly along for the ride.
Rudolph spent the overwhelming majority of that time on the sideline with a headset on or a clipboard in his hand, feeling a bit like a “freeloader.” The 28-year-old knew opportunities to prove himself were running out, one of the reasons he couldn't sleep before practice on Tuesday.
There was no sleepless night on Friday. Maybe because Rudolph felt prepared. He certainly looked that way while directing the Steelers to a 24-point halftime lead.
With his team's season hanging in the balance and speculation mounting that his 17-year tenure may be drawing to a close, coach Mike Tomlin told his players “scared money don't make money.”
Translation: Go out and let it rip.
The Steelers, for the first time in a long, long time, did just that, with the 22-year-old Pickens shrugging off criticism for his sometimes lackadaisical play by showcasing the game-breaking talent that Tomlin was so enamored with before the 2022 draft.
Pickens caught four passes for 195 yards — including a 44-yard sideline grab just before halftime that set up a field goal — and afterward apologized, sort of, for saying during the week that his critics were “media guys” who never played the game. Yet he also said he was keeping “receipts” and called the negativity that's engulfed the Steelers so much “outside noise.”
“People like to question (our commitment) a lot,” Pickens said. “But that just shows you (who we are).”
The path for Pittsburgh to reach the playoffs remains complicated — and who knows what will happen at Seattle next week, when Pickett could be ready to return from right ankle surgery — but the Steelers' first sweep of the Bengals since 2019 made it a little more navigable.
Cincinnati (8-7) is still in the mix, too, but Jake Browning fell to 3-2 as a starter in place of the injured Joe Burrow. The longtime practice squad player threw for 335 yards and a touchdown but was also picked off three times, with all three turnovers leading to points the other way.
“This is a humbling league, this is a humbling day,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said.
Tee Higgins finished with five receptions for 140 yards and an 80-yard touchdown for Cincinnati, but the game effectively ended Rudolph went deep on third down to a streaking Pickens on the Steelers' next possession. Pickens ran under it, then ran away from defenders to push the lead back to 23.
By the time the clock ran out, the crowd was singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the quarterback who had been an afterthought for so long was searching the stands looking for his parents.
Who knows if he'll start next week. Tomlin said it's too early to say. Rudolph has been through enough to know that there's no point in getting ahead of himself. The player who remembers getting a treehouse as a Christmas present as a kid received a game ball from defensive tackle Cam Heyward in a jubilant and relieved locker room.
“This is pretty up there (too),” he said with a laugh.
Steelers: LB Elandon Roberts exited early in the second quarter with a pectoral injury and did not return.
Bengals: Visit Kansas City on Dec. 31, a place they've become regulars in the playoffs over the last two seasons.
Steelers: Will try to win at Seattle for the second time in franchise history when they play the Seahawks on Dec. 31.
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