PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers have been 0-2 before. They've struggled on offense before. They've had issues on defense before. They've been blown out by the Patriots before. They've lost close games at home before.
Yet for the last 15 years, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has served as the steadying force. The voice that cuts through the noise. The one constant as the faces around him changed. The foundation of a team that hasn't endured a losing season since the day he took the job in 2004.
And now he's gone. At least for now. Done in by an elbow injury that cut short his 16th season after just six quarters of work, leaving the Steelers to find a way to move forward without him.
No pressure Mason Rudolph. All you have to do is take over for a guy with two Super Bowl rings and a reputation as one of the NFL's fiercest competitors. An alpha dog among alpha dogs. It's a challenge Rudolph insists he's ready for.
"You've got to react to adversity," Rudolph said Monday shortly after the team placed Roethlisberger on injured reserve "And I'm getting to play football and getting to fulfill a dream and continue this at this level, and I am excited to do that."
Rudolph didn't look overcome by the moment after stepping in for Roethlisberger in the second half on Sunday against Seattle, throwing for 112 yards with two touchdowns and an interception that only materialized after wide receiver Donte Moncrief let a pass go through his hands before smacking off his facemask. The 24-year-old played with energy and confidence. The Steelers lost 28-26 , but may have found a new identity — perhaps temporary, perhaps not — in the process.
"He gets fired up," running back Jaylen Samuels said. "He got something about him when he's doing something good, it gets everybody going. He has something about him."
Good, because Pittsburgh could certainly use a spark. A week after getting torched by the Patriots, the Steelers returned home to lose both their captain and the game. The defense let Russell Wilson do what he wanted over the final three quarters, and while Rudolph looked solid, the running game sputtered outside of a 23-yard first-quarter burst by rookie Benny Snell Jr.
"Everyone has to just play for each other, all as one," wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. "Yes (Roethlisberger) is a huge factor in our offense, in our game plan. He makes our offense go. So there's no doubt about that. But that being said, having (Rudolph) back there, it's not going to change. We're just going to play like the way we play and go hard every day."
Tight end Vance McDonald was an afterthought in Week 1. He responded by getting the first two-touchdown game of his career , scoring on a pair of fourth-quarter tosses from Rudolph. It was a promising sign for a passing game that is still looking for a volunteer to take some of the focus off Smith-Schuster.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
When guard Ramon Foster walked past defensive end Cam Heyward's locker late Sunday afternoon, Heyward told his longtime teammate Pittsburgh's problem isn't the offense but the defense. Heyward isn't exactly wrong. Though the Steelers did sack Wilson four times and create two turnovers that resulted in touchdowns, it also couldn't get off the field in the final minutes. Seattle drained the final 5:34 off the clock to preserve a two-point lead.
"They converted a fourth-and-1, which is unacceptable as a defense," said Heyward, who called his play "disappointing."
Rudolph. The Steelers had a first-round grade on Rudolph following his record-setting career at Oklahoma State, the main reason they took him with the 76th overall pick in 2018 even with Roethlisberger adamant he was going to play well into his late-30s. Rudolph has the arm strength to make the big-time throws and the legs to make something happen on the move.
Moncrief. After a forgettable debut in New England in which he only caught three of the 10 passes Roethlisberger threw his way, Moncrief was even worse against Seattle. He didn't see the field after setting up Seattle's interception and could be sliding down the depth chart.
Linebacker Anthony Chickillo's right leg remained in a walking boot on Monday as he deals with plantar fasciitis. Running back James Conner (knee) and safety Sean Davis (shoulder) appear to be shorter-term concerns.
1999 — The last time the Steelers won a road game against San Francisco. Pittsburgh heads west to face the unbeaten 49ers (2-0) on Sunday.
Making sure Rudolph, a self-professed "football nerd," is up to speed before his first NFL start, and trying to figure out things in the secondary after Wilson completed 29 of 35 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns.