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Steelers plan to start QB Mason Rudolph if Kenny Pickett can't play Saturday vs. Bengals

The calls for Mason Rudolph are being answered in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are planning to start the veteran quarterback in Week 16 against the Bengals, head coach Mike Tomlin announced Monday, provided usual top option Kenny Pickett cannot progress enough from his ankle injury to return to the lineup this weekend.

"As I stand here today, Mason Rudolph is the guy with the ball," Tomlin told reporters.

Rudolph is replacing second-stringer Mitchell Trubisky, who has started each of the Steelers' last two games in place of Pickett.

Pickett has been unavailable since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 13 that necessitated surgery, and as NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on Dec. 16, it's more likely Pickett takes the field in Week 17 when Pittsburgh plays the Seahawks on New Year's Eve. However, there is a chance he could return in time to play this Saturday versus Cincinnati, leading Tomlin to leave the door ajar for Pickett.

Trubisky's performances have left plenty to be desired. He completed 22 of 35 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown in a Week 14 start, but also threw an ugly interception that led to a New England touchdown in a Thursday night loss to the moribund Patriots. Pittsburgh's offense struggled mightily in the defeat, prompting fans in attendance at Acrisure Stadium to start chants clamoring for Rudolph. Nine days later, the former second-overall pick of the 2017 draft was benched for Rudolph in the second half of a 30-13 loss to Indianapolis following Trubisky's second interception of the day.

Rudolph has starting experience in his five-year NFL career. He replaced the injured Ben Roethlisberger in 2019, starting eight games and posting a 5-3 record in those contests while completing 62.2% of his passes for 1,765 yards and a 13-9 TD-INT ratio. He's started just two games since then, though, and found himself third on the depth chart after the Steelers acquired Trubisky in the 2022 offseason.

"As we sit here today it is our intention to give Mason Rudolph an opportunity to start," Tomlin said. "He's a veteran guy. He's a backup, but he's also a veteran guy. He's been in our program a long time. He's here for those reasons. We've got a great deal of comfort with him.

"Why are we making the change? We don't like what we're looking at in the consistency of it. What I mean is we're not scoring enough points. Particularly as we move into December football, you've got to score more than 12, 14, 16 points in games this time of year. You've got to assume that others are doing the same. The engineering of victory is not going to be fluid if you're not doing those things."

Pittsburgh is in a tough spot with three weeks left to play in the 2023 regular season. It's lost three straight games, contests largely played with Trubisky as its quarterback, and has dates with Cincinnati, Seattle and Baltimore -- all teams in the playoff hunt -- left on the schedule.

If the Steelers hope to reach the playoffs, they'll likely have to win out to have a realistic chance of doing so. If Pickett cannot go this weekend, the responsibility will fall on Rudolph to start a winning streak.

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