Pittsburgh Steelers QB Mason Rudolph preps to start even though he might not if Ben Roethlisberger returns from COVID-19 list

PITTSBURGH -- Mason Rudolph has been here before.

A week of preparation as the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback without his status as starter set in stone.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, needs to be symptom-free for 48 hours and two negative tests taken 24 hours apart to exit the league's COVID-19 protocols.

Until then, Rudolph is preparing as if he will start Sunday night at the Los Angeles Chargers.

"It's just the nature of being a backup quarterback right now," he said Thursday. "There's ebb and flow. [Quarterbacks] Coach Sully (Mike Sullivan) calls it 'midstream adjust.' You've gotta adjust and always be ready. I think having those experiences with Cincy last year and over my career has helped me kind of be ready to flip on a dime.

"Finding out last Saturday night right before I went to the hotel, you kind of go through those storms and you're hardened from it."

A year ago, he did the same thing preparing for a Week 10 meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals when Roethlisberger landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list as a high-risk close contact of tight end Vance McDonald. Because he didn't develop symptoms and continued to test negative, Roethlisberger was activated the Saturday before playing the Bengals.

This time around, Roethlisberger could still be a last-minute activation. He must be on the 53-man roster by 4 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon, but the Steelers could opt to put him on the active roster before he exits protocols. There is an open spot on the roster, and if he doesn't meet the negative test requirements, he would simply be inactive for the game. The team flight to Los Angeles leaves Saturday morning, but Roethlisberger could still wind up making the trip and starting even if he doesn't travel with the team.

"If we get to a point in the week where Ben has an opportunity to get on a moving train, that's exactly what he'll do," coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. "He'll be capable of executing the game plan. I really have no reservations about that. I think he missed a significant amount of time of a work week last year when he was on the close contact list, and he got back to us late in the week and performed. He's been injured and had personal discomfort in the past over the course of the 15 years that we've worked together. He always answers that bell, and so we'll definitely leave the light on for him."

A week ago, Rudolph found out the night before facing the Detroit Lions that Roethlisberger would miss Sunday's game, thrusting him into the starting job. He took over Roethlisberger's game plan and finished with 242 yards, one touchdown and one interception. This week, the Steelers are game-planning around him, installing plays that highlight his strengths.

"[Offensive coordinator Matt] Canada does a great job of asking me," Rudolph said. "Each week, we put out our favorite plays in the game plan. That hasn't changed all year. So, they have a feel for what we prefer. There are maybe some concepts Josh Dobbs prefers over Ben [Roethlisberger], some concepts Ben prefers over me. They do a great job of tailoring that, like for me this week. I feel comfortable with the plan."

While Roethlisberger isolates at home, he's still meeting with Canada and Sullivan.

"I've talked to him every day," Canada said Thursday. "Talked about the plan, talked about what we're thinking. Obviously, he's also met with Sully every day and gone through the specifics of those things. He's preparing like he's going to be there and be ready to go.

"It's almost exactly like last year. It's just all Zoom meetings. We've all got practice at that. He's very much engaged, watching practice and knowing what's going on."

Rudolph, who would be making his 11th career start on Sunday, understands his preparation could all be for naught, but he isn't letting that take away from his potential opportunity to improve on last week's performance and prove he's a viable option for the future.

"I think every opportunity is an opportunity to prove myself to my teammates, to our coaches, that I can be a starter," Rudolph said. "I'm not gonna put any pressure on it any more than I did Sunday or at practice today. I'm my own hardest critic at times, and to a fault, but I'm excited about it. If that happens, if I'm the guy, we're gonna go."