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Assessing the Steelers Without Big Ben


For the Steelers and no less for many fantasy GMs, Week 2 was a nightmare scenario. We all know that football is a contact sport, and we should know injuries can be just at the turn of the next corner, but they are never easy to accept nonetheless.

Ben Roethlisberger was noticeably wincing in pain after several throws before leaving the game against Seattle at halftime, never to come back. Just a few hours later, we found out Big Ben will miss the rest of the season after undergoing elbow surgery on his throwing arm. In the blink of an eye, his season is over and second-year QB Mason Rudolph is left to lead one of the top offenses in the league.

It's a tough blow for Roethlisberger and the Steelers first and foremost. From a fantasy perspective, what does it mean for the other Steelers players? It's time to take a look at the Pittsburgh offense and assess how this injury will impact the different players that are part of this group going forward.

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QB Mason Rudolph

Just one week after trading Joshua Dobbs away to Jacksonville, Roethlisberger went down injured. Luckily for the Steelers, they still had a viable option active in Mason Rudolph, who they valued more than Dobbs as they opted to keep the former Oklahoma State star and 2018 draftee.

In his first professional game backing up Roethlisberger against Seattle, he completed 12-of-19 passes for 112 yards, with two touchdowns (both to TE Vance McDonald) and one interception (on a pass intended for Donte Moncrief that was batted in the air). That wasn't the best but neither the worst performance ever, on limited playing time.

Fantasy Impact: Pittsburgh's third-string QB is now Devlin Hodges. He wasn't even part of the Steelers 53-man roster, so he is no threat at all for Rudolph's playing time going forward. Rudolph wasn't an option even in 2QB or deep leagues, but now he's the QB1 of Pittsburgh and a decent streaming option at the position on weeks where the matchup calls for it. He's no Big Ben though, so don't expect similar production.

 

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Donte Moncrief

The meat and potatoes of the fantasy world, the WR position--and the RB one that I'll tackle next--is the one that will be hit the hardest by Roethlisberger's injury. Losing a future Hall of Famer and flipping him for a backup QB is definitely a downgrade any way you slice it.

Smith-Schuster had not had the worst start of a season ever, but he hasn't been able to put together a 14-plus PPR performance yet (he had 11 of them in 2018, three to start the season). Washington has been targeted nine times in two games, catching four passes for 73 yards. Moncrief has been mediocre since joining the Steelers, starting the season with a 3.7 PPR mark and following it with a big old zero.

Fantasy Impact: After finding out the news of Roethlisberger's injury, every single owner of a Steelers receiver should have automatically lowered his expectations of what they can provide during the rest of the season. A tough start for all the three players aforementioned didn't look good, and it does less so now.

There is no reason to drop a now high-end WR2 in Smith-Schuster. He will keep being the go-to option for Rudolph the same as he was with Roethlisberger at the helm. Washington's and Moncrief's cases could be more troubling going forward. Inexperienced quarterbacks and backups forced to start without notice tend to rely on safe options. At this point, none of those two players can be considered as such.

While Roethlisberger targeted Washington three times before leaving the game on Sunday, Rudolph only did once, although their rapport should be there from the get-go as they were teammates in OSU. Moncrief already helped Rudolph make the history books, dropping his lone target and helping the Seahawks picking that ball for an interception.

My advice would be to hold on to JuJu and just find better options at the WR3/FLEX positions through the waiver wire, dropping both Washington and Moncrief. They were already borderline roster options, and there is no reason to keep them in your team going forward.

 

RB James Conner

While Conner himself also finished the game against the Seahawks injured (knee), it looks like he will be back by Week 3 without missing playing time. Had he gone down for as long as Roethlisberger, we could be talking about a drop-everyone situation around the Steelers in fantasy terms. Luckily for you, that is not the case.

With Jaylen Samuels remaining the backup and Benny Snell getting just one carry last week, Conner will be the main ball carrier of the team and the second player most relied on with Rudolph managing the attack. It's a two-man offense now between the WR-RB pair of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Conner.

Fantasy Impact: As with wide receivers, newbie-quarterbacks tend to go the safe route when it comes to running backs. That means they hand the ball off to them and don't look for too tough tasks to complete such as connecting with them through passes. Last year, James Conner finished with the 14th-most targets among RBs with 71, catching 55 of them for 497 yards. That is some serious production (even more in PPR leagues), but it is also far from that of other rushers much more used on the passing game such as Christian McCaffrey or James White. Keep in mind, also, that Roethlisberger led the NFL in pass attempts last season, boosting Conner numbers in that department.

James Conner remains a low-end RB2 at the very least and someone to put in the RB2/FLEX spot every week on his pure ability. The problem he'll face is that defenses might not fear Rudolph enough as to pay heavy attention to the wideouts, focusing on the running game. Conner's performance will feel the hit, but maybe the situation helps as he gets more touches on the ground as a good safety valve for Rudolph. We'll see if HC Mike Tomlin adapts the heavy-run Steelers game to fit the situation, though.

 

TE Vance McDonald

Perhaps the least affected player by Roethlisberger's injury is McDonald. He should be the clear third option on offense now only behind JuJu and Conner, and tight ends are one of the most-dependable positions on the field to complete easy passes on short routes. Through Week 2, McDonald has already posted 28.8 PPR, good for fifth-best among tight ends, finishing this last weekend's game against Seattle with 22.8 points and TE1 production.

Fantasy Impact: In the two quarters he and Rudolph shared the field on Sunday, they connected for two touchdowns, on eight and three-yard passes. If this keeps up going forward (and there is no reason to think it won't), McDonald's fantasy value won't be impacted much if at all. McDonald's targets will most probably fluctuate between three and seven depending on the day and matchup, and his 69.4 catch rate from 2018 along his 8.5 Y/Tgt should be enough for him to keep piling 10.0-plus PPR performances for the rest of the season.

It is highly improbable that you can find McDonald for free on the waiver wire at this point (mostly because he should have been a late draft pick on draft day), but if he happens to be there he is a great option to stream the position or even hold onto as your TE1 even with Rudolph at the helm.

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