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Can Steelers QB Mason Rudolph exploit Ravens' problems with big plays?

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PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph finds it all a little ironic.

Once scrutinized for throwing the deep ball too often and not developing accuracy with intermediate-level passes, now he hears the loud calls coming from outside the team’s building to air it out more.

“You guys can say we're not throwing it deep all you want, but sometimes that's football, take what’s there,” said Rudolph, who’s averaging just 3.3 air yards per completion, the lowest since 2006 for any quarterback with 50 completions. “I mean, I love throwing the ball deep. I was criticized often for doing that too much in college. So it's refreshing to be the opposite.”

Calls for Rudolph to return to his college form could be growing even louder as the Steelers prepare to take on a Baltimore Ravens team that has been susceptible to big plays so far this season.

Over the past four games, the Ravens (2-2) have given up four passing plays of at least 50 yards, a mark that leads the NFL.

“They’re a great defense. Their front seven is very strong, very physical," Steelers tight end Nick Vannett said this week. "But like any team, they have some weaknesses. We put an emphasis on those weaknesses in the team meeting room, and we’re going to do everything we can to game plan against that and expose those weaknesses.”

But for the Steelers (1-3), taking advantage of the big plays in this offense might not mean making big passes. A week ago, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was telling his quarterback to not shy away from making the long throw.

“We had some opportunities for some throws and even some shots, and if you don’t connect or throw them it never really materializes,” Fichtner said after the loss to the 49ers. "We were able to go down the field early. You’ve got to throw them. You’ve got to throw it. You’ve got to attempt to throw it there.”

But after a victory over the Bengals in which Rudolph frequently checked it down, averaging 3.5 air yards per attempt -- the lowest by a Steelers quarterback in a game since ESPN began tracking air yards in 2006 -- Fichtner seemed to back off those words.

“We always talk about catch short, run long,” Fichtner said. “We’ve got to break tackles. We’ve got to make guys miss. That’s the way this league is. We call it playmakers. Playmakers got to make plays. If you’re on the field, you’re a playmaker. Make plays ..."

If the plan is indeed to get the ball out quickly and let the playmakers catch the ball short and run long, the Steelers will need their key offensive weapons to be at full strength Sunday afternoon -- which is hardly a guarantee. While running back James Conner (ankle) will play against the Ravens, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s availability is officially listed as questionable after he aggravated a Week 1 toe injury against the Bengals.

Smith-Schuster’s 76-yard touchdown against the 49ers was the Steelers’ longest passing play of the season, and the only one over 50 yards. Against the Bengals, meanwhile, he had just 15 receiving yards as he battled through the toe injury. If Smith-Schuster can’t generate big plays this weekend through long receptions or catch-and-run plays, there’s another option beginning to emerge in rookie Diontae Johnson.

The receiver, who took over for Donte Moncrief in Week 3, has two receptions of more than 35 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown in Week 4. With defenses swarming Smith-Schuster, Johnson should see plenty of opportunities to be a playmaker. Against the Bengals, Rudolph spent most of the game drawing the defense in by making short throws. Eventually, that opened up the deep shot to Johnson for the score.

“You see him making plays left and right,” Smith-Schuster said of Johnson. “I’m getting double-teams. He’s the one coming up making plays, and other receivers, too. Just doing their job.”

In addition to Johnson, the Steelers can also look to tight end Vannett, acquired via trade with Seattle, to exploit the Ravens’ porous, big-play defense. Vannett trained with Rudolph in the offseason and is quickly developing a chemistry with the quarterback on the field, in part due to the shoulder injury that kept tight end Vance McDonald out of Pittsburgh's previous game and has him listed as questionable against the Ravens. Vannett had two catches for 28 yards, including one 17-yard reception.

“I think I showed [Rudolph] that he can throw it anywhere and I can go ahead and get the grab,” Vannett said. “Hopefully that allows him to go be like, ‘All right, I can trust him a little. I can throw the ball more his way.’”

Rudolph hears the calls to let it fly. But, as last weekend showed, that doesn’t mean he will.