- Previously covered the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star and Oklahoma University for the Oklahoman.
PITTSBURGH — Mason Rudolph hasn’t heard from Myles Garrett in the year since the brawl that ended the 2019 meeting between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns in Cleveland, although if the Browns’ defensive end approaches him Sunday, the Steelers quarterback is willing to have a conversation.
“I’m happy to hear Myles out with whatever he would — if he wants to approach me, if he wants to talk,” Rudolph said Friday. “He’s a great player, and they are playing well as a defense. He’s a menace in the backfield. He’s very disruptive. When they are playing at their best, he’s sack-fumbling and he’s getting to the quarterback. Obviously, you are very aware of that, and you treat him with great respect.”
Recognizing he’s an important player in this matchup, Garrett was made the captain for Sunday’s game, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Friday.
“It’s a big game, so I’m sending the big guy out there,” Stefanski said. “But it’s in no way a callback to anything previously.”
After the incident last year, for which Garrett was suspended for the remainder of the season, he alleged Rudolph directed a racial slur at him before the brawl although the NFL said it “found no such evidence” after investigating the allegations. Garrett stood by his allegations in an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines earlier this year.
The Steelers quarterback isn’t focusing on their history or conversations — or lack thereof — ahead of his first start this season.
With the AFC North locked up, the Steelers are giving Ben Roethlisberger a week off and starting the third-year quarterback. While the Steelers only have playoff seeding to play for Sunday, the Browns are vying for their first postseason berth in 18 seasons.
“He has not reached out to me in any capacity,” Rudolph said of Garrett. “I got a lot of respect for Myles. He’s a great player. They’ve got a great defense, a great team. They’re playing for a lot. It’s going to be a fun game. A lot on the line for them.
“They’re playing for a playoff berth, and so outside of that, this game is too big to worry about anything external that happened years ago.”
The public narrative around Rudolph has revolved around that altercation with Garrett, but in private, Rudolph has been working to become a better quarterback with the help of Roethlisberger, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and new quarterbacks coach Matt Canada.
Rudolph’s tenure as starting quarterback a year ago in Roethlisberger’s absence was a rocky one. He dealt with two significant injuries, a concussion and a season-ending shoulder injury, and he was benched a week after the brawl in Cleveland for former practice squad quarterback Duck Hodges during a dismal outing in Cincinnati. Even before the run-in with Garrett, Rudolph was playing poorly against the Browns. With his offensive weapons severely depleted, Rudolph completed just 23 of 44 attempts for 221 yards with four interceptions and four sacks.
Rudolph finished his first season as a starter with 1,765 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Because the preseason was canceled, Rudolph hasn’t had much in-game experience — save for mop-up duty in a handful of late-game situations — but he has shown growth and maturity in practice and in the way he interacts with Roethlisberger and his coaches during games.
Rudolph spends most games near Fichtner on the sideline, and in the past few weeks, he’s not only joined their sideline discussions during TV timeouts and between series, he’s also contributed to the conversations.
“I think [Roethlisberger] trusts that I’m in my third year, maybe I’m understanding football at a level that I couldn’t the last two years,” Rudolph said. “He’s been very open to suggestions, as well as Randy.”
Displaying growth in his understanding of the offense, Rudolph hasn’t hesitated to show his coaches or veteran quarterback things he’s noticed on the tablet, something Fichtner acknowledges takes confidence and maturity. Roethlisberger agrees.
“He’s physically gifted, we know that,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s smart. We know he can make all the throws and do things, but even the ways that I have seen it are in-game. … It happened in the past with Bruce Gradkowski and Charlie [Batch] and Byron [Leftwich], and Mason has gotten to the point, especially in the last few weeks, where he is chiming in with thoughts and plays that, ‘Hey Ben, what about this, or what about this?’ I think that shows growth and maturity of a guy that understands the offense and kind of what we are trying to do on a week-to-week basis. I think that’s been really, really good.”
With Roethlisberger back this season, Rudolph hasn’t had a chance to show his improvement on the field, and he’s relishing the opportunity Sunday. But, he cautioned, he isn’t viewing it as an audition for his future as a starting quarterback.
“I think to look at this as anything an opportunity to prove yourself to your teammates and coaches is silly,” Rudolph said. “I don’t want to make it too big. It’s a great chance to score some points and try to win a ball game.”
ESPN’s Jake Trotter contributed to this report.
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