Are the Saints and Steelers Doomed Without Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger?
Injuries are an unfortunate aspect of every NFL season. Injuries affect all sports, of course, but the violent nature of football lends itself to more devastating injuries than we see in other sports. Every year, it seems as though contenders lose a handful of key players, and those issues wind up affecting Super Bowl odds.
The 2019 NFL regular season is just a couple of weeks old, but we have already seen several high-profile players go down. Week 2 was particularly brutal to a couple of teams with legitimate postseason aspirations. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to an elbow injury, while the New Orleans Saints saw their signal-caller, Drew Brees, go down with an apparent thumb issue.
On Monday morning, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that Roethlisberger would miss the remainder of the season due to ligament damage in his throwing elbow. Brees, meanwhile, will undergo surgery for a torn ligament in his throwing thumb that will keep him sidelined for as many as six weeks. Roethlisberger’s issue will require “Tommy John” surgery to repair a torn UCL, which is an injury often seen in baseball pitchers.
Both teams went on to lose their respective Week 2 matchups with their backup quarterbacks leading the way. Mason Rudolph and the Steelers were beaten at home by the Seattle Seahawks, while Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints came up short on the road against the Los Angeles Rams. Pittsburgh is now in an 0-2 hole, while New Orleans is 1-1 following a narrow season-opening win over the Houston Texans last week.
Roethlisberger and Brees are future Hall of Famers, so their respective absences are huge for their teams’ title hopes this season. The Steelers’ odds of winning Super Bowl LIV have plummeted to +6600 following their brutal start to the season, while the Saints’ have fallen to +2000. Does either team have a chance of beating the odds amid devastating injuries to their starting quarterbacks?
Rudolph’s Time to Shine
If you’re a fan of college football, you’re likely familiar with Mason Rudolph. Rudolph was a 3-year starter at Oklahoma State, and during his time in Stillwater he helped transform the Cowboys’ offense into one of the most prolific in the nation. Rudolph topped 4,000 yards in each of his final 2 collegiate seasons with a combined 63 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
He was ultimately taken as the Steelers’ third-round draft pick back in 2018, and he spent his rookie campaign as Pittsburgh’s third-stringer behind Roethlisberger and Josh Dobbs. He was promoted to Pittsburgh’s QB2 before the season, and that role was solidified when the Steelers traded Dobbs to Jacksonville after the Jaguars lost Nick Foles in Week 1.
Rudolph acquitted himself nicely after coming on in relief of Roethlisberger to make his NFL debut on Sunday. The second-year passer completed 12 of his 19 throws for 112 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception. The interception wasn’t even his fault, as his pass went bouncing off the hands of Donte Moncrief and into the arms of a Seattle defender.
Rudolph has been working to prepare for this opportunity, and his teammates are reportedly confident in his ability to get the job done. Following the narrow loss to the Seahawks, Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said,
“He is going to throw the ball and make his reads. I think he is very deliberate about that and that is something we can look forward to on offense.”
Unless Rudolph goes down with an injury, he will be running the show from the Steelers for the remainder of the campaign. As you may expect, the schedule isn’t overly favorable. Pittsburgh will hit the road to face a 2-0 San Francisco 49ers team in Week 3 before games against the Bengals, Ravens, and Chargers ahead of their Week 7 bye.
Pittsburgh gets a cupcake with the Dolphins coming to town following the bye, but they will then face three potential playoff teams in the Colts, Rams, and Browns immediately after that. Games down the stretch of the season against Cleveland, Buffalo, and Baltimore won’t be easy, either.
Bridgewater was the Vikings’ first-round draft choice back in 2014 after a standout career at the University of Louisville. He enjoyed a solid rookie campaign for Minnesota that year after taking over for Matt Cassel. He played fairly well that year, finishing with just under 3,000 yards passing to go along with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Bridgewater earned a Pro Bowl nod the next season, but he suffered a devastating knee injury before the 2016 campaign that would ultimately keep him sidelined for almost two full seasons. He returned to play briefly for Minnesota late in the 2017 season before signing with the Jets in March of 2018 as a free agent. He was traded to the Saints in August of ‘18 following an impressive preseason showing with New York. He reportedly turned down a chance to take the starting job in Miami to return to the Saints as Brees’ backup earlier this year.
Bridgewater is thought by many to be among the best backups in the league. So, the Saints aren’t in a bad spot even with Brees unavailable for the next handful of games. Bridgewater was hit-or-miss in Sunday’s loss in Los Angeles, finishing 17 for 30 with 165 yards without a touchdown or an interception. The Saints failed to find the end zone all game long, but it wasn’t all Bridgewater’s fault.
Brees should be back in the fold by early-November. It will be Bridgewater’s job to make sure the Saints don’t fall out of the playoff race between now and then. Bridgewater didn’t have a ton of time to make reads against the Rams, as Aaron Donald and company dominated the Saints’ offensive line. New Orleans also committed 11 penalties in the game, which further disrupted their cause.
The Saints have no shortage of talent surrounding Bridgewater. The 26-year-old has arguably the game’s most dynamic back in Alvin Kamara at his disposal, while Michael Thomas is one of the more trustworthy pass-catchers in the game. If his O-line can hold up around him, there is little reason to believe the Saints are dead in the water with Bridgewater running the show.
New Orleans’ bye week won’t come until Week 9, though, so Bridgewater won’t have any breaks. The Saints will face a tough Seahawks defense on the road in Week 3, followed by a showdown with the 2-0 Dallas Cowboys in the SuperDome in Week 4. The schedule lets up a bit after that, as New Orleans draws, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Chicago, and Arizona before the off week.
Things have been somewhat tumultuous for the Steelers over the last few months. Le’Veon Bell left via free agency after missing last season due to a contract holdout, while Antonio Brown quit late last year with the Steelers still in the hunt for a playoff spot. Pittsburgh has solid replacements for both with James Conner and Juju Smith-Schuster already in the fold. However, Roethlisberger’s injury is just the latest unfortunate situation for Tomlin and co.
While losing last season’s league-leader in passing yards is a blow, the Steelers can’t be counted out of the playoff hunt quite yet. Their division is hardly loaded. The Ravens have been impressive with their 2-0 start, but the Browns were crushed in Week 1, and the Bengals are 0-2. Even with Rudolph at the helm, it’s not impossible to think the Steelers can make a push for second place in the division. Given the relative lack of depth in the AFC, second place in the AFC North could still be enough to secure a Wild Card spot.
The NFC South looks like the tougher division on paper, but the Saints’ bunkmates haven’t exactly gotten off to blistering starts, either. The Falcons narrowly avoided an 0-2 start with a come-from-behind win over the Eagles on Sunday night to even their record at 1-1, while the Panthers are off to an 0-2 start following two disheartening performances from Cam Newton. Tampa Bay is 1-1, but anything other than a last-place finish for Bruce Arians’ squad would still be a surprise.
While the AFC is pretty wide-open once you get past New England and Kansas City, the NFC appears to have more overall quality. Philadelphia, Dallas, L.A., Green Bay, Minnesota, Chicago, Atlanta, and Seattle could easily be playoff contenders. Teams like San Francisco and Carolina are unpredictable, and with Brees now on the shelf, the Saints can’t be counted among the true Super Bowl contenders. At least not yet.
As of now, the Saints look like a much better bet at +2000 to win Super Bowl LIV than the Steelers do at +6600. Brees’ injury is an obvious bump on the road, but the fact that he will return to full health this season is an obvious boost for New Orleans. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger being gone for the season may ultimately prove to be a death knell for the Steelers.
Could Mason Rudolph ultimately prove to be the next Tom Brady? It’s not likely, but not impossible, either. Rudolph came out of college with more hype than Brady did, and he does have some decent talent around him. That said, not many had the Steelers pegged as legitimate Super Bowl contenders this year, even when Big Ben was running the show. Pittsburgh’s lackluster 2018 combined with the anticipated rise of the Browns had many pegging Cleveland as the odds-on favorite to come out of the AFC North before the season.
The Saints were among the favorites to win coming out of the NFC. They came close to winning the conference a season ago. Brees’ absence could lead to a less impressive overall record once the season is over with. I would be happy to take a shot on New Orleans at their current odds. Losing out on a potential first-round bye does make the Saints’ path to the Super Bowl more complicated, but +2000 makes for a pretty favorable number given the talent on this roster. Assuming Brees can come back and play up to his caliber, there is no reason to believe this injury will doom the Saints this season. Nobody else appears primed to run away with the division, and I think Bridgewater can keep the team afloat.
The Steelers are not the worst long-shot bet at +6600, but I would be much more inclined to take a stab at the Saints at +2000.