Dwayne Haskins or Mason Rudolph? Steelers' backup QB debate far from being settled

CANTON, Ohio -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin measures his players in quizzes and tests.

Games, the ultimate football test, are weighted heavier than practice, his quizzes.

In 11 practices at Heinz Field, quarterback Dwayne Haskins impressed in his quizzes with successful two-minute drills and accuracy that he lacked in the offseason workouts, while Mason Rudolph appeared to leave the door open for Haskins with mental errors and missed throws to his receivers.

But Thursday night at the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, both quarterbacks scored about the same on their first test, leaving the battle for Ben Roethlisberger's backup quarterback -- and potential successor -- still a long way from being settled.

“That’s not for me to decide,” said Rudolph when asked how he performed on Thursday’s test. “That’s a coaching decision and way above my pay grade. There were good things and a couple mistakes, like there is often. I’ve got to clean up and go build off better things. Listen, if you’re good in this league, you’re going to find a seat at the table, no matter what team.”

Rudolph completed 6 of 9 attempts for 84 yards, and Haskins was 8-of-13 for 54 yards.

“I thought they did a nice job, particularly from a play clock standpoint,” Tomlin said. “New verbiage and things of that nature. First time in the stadium with a real play clock. It’s difficult for us to simulate in practice settings. I thought they did a nice job managing some of those things, but largely, I thought all of their performances were positive.”

Rudolph got the start Thursday and played for a quarter and a half. He connected on his first three passes, but his first drive ended when he fumbled a handoff to receiver Chase Claypool.

“It was supposed to be a handoff,” Rudolph said. “I’ve just got to do a better job of getting it in his sweet spot, his bread basket and getting the ball around.”

Rudolph’s throw of the day came in the second quarter when he uncorked a 45-yard pass to Claypool on the sideline. Claypool dove for the ball to make the catch and was slow coming off the field. Tomlin said afterward that the second-year receiver was fine. The 45-yard completion was the longest by any quarterback on either team, but it was the only time Rudolph took advantage of the Cowboys’ defensive scheme that left receivers open deep.

The drive stalled when Rudolph threw behind James Washington on third down -- the quarterback’s final play of the night -- and Sam Sloman missed a 49-yard field goal.

“It felt good to be back,” Rudolph said. “Preseason games in general. Overall gotta be better, gotta finish drives. Gotta put more points on the board, but I thought while we were out there, the overall quality of the work was where we wanted to be.”

As planned, Haskins took over to end the second quarter and played through the third, leading two scoring drives, but not flashing some of the wow factor that made him stand out early in training camp.

He led a scoring drive, capped by a 4-yard run up the gut by Kalen Ballage, and another drive that ended in a field goal. He completed 3 of 4 passes on third down for 13 yards, but he didn’t convert any of them. He also averaged just 4.2 yards per attempt, significantly below Rudolph’s 9.3 and living up to Tomlin’s camp nickname for him.

“Coach Tomlin calls me ‘Checkdown’ so he wants to see if I can throw the ball down the field,” Haskins said Tuesday in describing the competitive nature of the Steelers' camp.

Tomlin, though, liked what he saw from Haskins in his first taste of live action with the Steelers.

“I liked his demeanor,” he said. “I thought he was a really good communicator. I thought he was present and kind of cerebral, the way that you like the quarterback position to be.”

And while the backup quarterback fight might appear to be a two-man race, Josh Dobbs turned some heads Thursday with the lone touchdown throw to Tyler Simmons for a 5-yard score in the fourth quarter. He completed 4-of-6 for 37 yards in the fourth quarter.

“He’s been with us before and performed similarly when given an opportunity,” Tomlin said. “This guy is not going to back down from the competition. You guys keep asking me about Rudolph and Haskins, man, he’s not going anywhere.”

The preseason might be a practice exam for most veterans with guaranteed spots on the roster, but that’s hardly the case for the quarterbacks behind Roethlisberger. Rudolph entered the 2021 season as the only quarterback under contract for 2022, and he appeared to be the heavy favorite to retain his spot as the primary backup.

Haskins, though, doesn’t see it that way.

Asked if there was an open competition for the No. 2 spot two days before the Hall of Fame game, Haskins made his intentions clear.

“I’m trying to make it one,” he said, “so hopefully.”